It was the worst nightmare of anyone with a severe dietary restriction or food allergy. In late July, a restaurant patron was hospitalized–and almost killed–when he was served a dish containing salmon, which he is deathly allergic to. After a hospitalization and a recovery, the waiter who served the dish was arrested and could be charged with criminal negligence in the near future. Apparently, the customer had mentioned numerous times that he had a severe allergy, but the waiter served him a dish containing fish, hospitalizing him.


While this occurrence was more than likely life-changing (and nearly life-ending) for the customer at the restaurant in Quebec, it is something that happens almost regularly, as the dining industry is often unable to guarantee that some combination of cross contamination, miscommunication or simple switching of orders won’t result in an allergic reaction.


So what can a restaurant–and its patrons–do to avoid scenarios like these in the future?


Well, it’s difficult for basically everyone involved. Most restaurants feature footnotes at the bottom of the menu that warns those with food allergies to proceed with caution. Typically, the warnings say, to some extent, that cross-contamination is always possible, and the risk of an allergic reaction is always present, even when precautions are taken. They are similar to the warnings that you may see on the back of packaged goods purchased from a grocery store, essentially warning the eater that the food is produced in a facility that also handles common allergens like peanuts, tree nuts or eggs.


A portion of the blame for some allergic reactions that occur within restaurant walls can be laid on the shoulders of miscommunication. While allergies to ingredients such as peanuts or gluten are very real and very dangerous, some allergies are misconstrued as simple intolerances or diets. With the trend of avoiding gluten in meals when possible emerging in recent years, serving gluten to someone on a diet is significantly less harmful than serving it to someone with an allergy. Unfortunately, the line between diet, intolerance and allergy can occasionally be muddled and miscommunicated in the restaurant business.


Proper labeling and a knowledgeable staff can help avoid both mixups and negligence when it comes to allergies. Restaurants are required by law to disclose ingredients to dishes when asked, even if the ingredients are a part of a “secret recipe” in order to keep customers safe. This requires not only compliance by the restaurant, but knowledgeable and well-trained staff. There have been numerous instances of waiters and waitresses simply neglecting to properly warn a customer of allergens in a food because they were unaware, as was the case in a cheesecake-related incident. With a wait staff that is not only knowledgeable about the menu offered, but properly trained in food allergy awareness, many mistakes can be avoided.


Part of the caution, however, should also fall on the shoulders of the diner. It’s important not only to disclose your allergy to the waiter, but to closely check the menu before ordering and, perhaps most importantly, exercise caution! Understand that there will almost always be a chance of something being miscommunicated, misconstrued, misheard or forgotten about when you’re dining out. It’s much, much better to be safe than to go into anaphylaxis.