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Recipe for Disaster at Restaurants - Customers with Food Allergies
By Diana M. Alba, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

July  5, 2006--LAS CRUCES -- Had Christina Michener known a chocolate dessert would land her a 4-hour, anxiety-ridden stay in a local hospital, she almost certainly would have avoided it.

Michener, 39, of Las Cruces was at dinner with friends one week ago and decided to order the dessert. Because she has a severe, potentially fatal allergy to nuts, she said she asked the waitress to find out whether it contained any.

"She went to the kitchen, checked and came back and said no," Michener said.

But after just a few bites, Michener knew the waitress had missed something. Michener's tongue started swelling, she lost her voice and breathing became difficult, she said.

A manager checked the label to find that even though the dessert didn't have nuts, it was processed on equipment that also processed nuts, Michener said.

"One of my friends rushed me to MountainView hospital where I had to be treated for a severe allergic reaction," she said.

As she received shots of epinephrine and Benedryl, along with a breathing treatment, Michener said her mind was on her 12-year-old son.

"I was thinking 'is this the one that's going to kill me?'" she said. "Am I going to see him again?"

Michener declined to name the restaurant where she ate.

Though the restaurant owner agreed to pay for her medical expenses, Michener said, it's an experience she wants others to avoid. She said she hopes restaurant owners consider training their employees about how to deal with customers who have food allergies, especially because reactions can be deadly.

"There needs to be a lot more public awareness on this about how serious this is," she said. "If they could just do simple things, like put a notice on their menu..., then these servers will know what to look for. It can easily be prevented."

Other options include taking employees through a course like they're required to complete if they serve alcohol, she said.

Michener said even trace amounts of nuts or nut oils can send her into an allergic reaction, something people without food allergies often don't understand.

A 2002 article by the National Restaurant Association advises restaurants to ensure servers know what items are on their menu and what ingredients they contain. The article also encourages cooks to avoid cross-contamination by preparing foods with nuts, fish, eggs or other common allergens separately from foods that don't have those ingredients.

Carol Wight, CEO and spokeswoman for the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said she knows of no requirements for training of restaurant staff. Even so, restaurant owners want their customers to be safe, she said.

"I think the best thing a restaurant can do is know the ingredients of the foods they serve so they can alert people," she said.

Wight, former owner of the now-closed Way Out West restaurant in Las Cruces, said she maintained a list of food ingredients for employees to refer to.

Ed Linderman, owner of Applebee's and Village Inn restaurants in Las Cruces, said his employees will check labels for allergens, though they don't have specific training to deal with customers with food allergies. Maintaining a reference list of possible food allergens sounds like a good idea, he said.

"Currently we don't have a quick reference guide, but I'm going to contact our franchisors, Applebee's and Village Inn, and suggest that," he said. "Maybe it would be good for the allergens to be printed on the menus."

Of the estimated 40 million to 50 million people with allergies in the United States, just 1 to 2 percent suffer from food allergies, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish account for about 80 to 90 percent of food allergies, said Eugene Marciniak, medical doctor and district health officer for the New Mexico Department of Health's southwest region.

Marciniak said reactions occur when a person's body mistakes food as being harmful.

"The body doesn't realize the food being eaten is a beneficial food," he said. "The body's immune system sees the food as something foreign."

Marciniak said this results in the production of antigens, which sets off a chain reaction of symptoms that can range from minor to severe.

Marciniak advised people who know they have allergies to be cautious when eating out and said they should read food labels carefully. In instances of severe allergies, doctors can prescribe that patients carry epinephrine shots in case a reaction occurs, he said.

Michener said her doctor has told her that subsequent allergic reactions to nuts could kill her, and she's planning heightened awareness.

"I've been asking questions about what I can do to be extra cautious," she said. "Now I can't eat any desserts at a restaurant. If I'm not sure, I don't even eat it."

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To see more of the Las Cruces Sun-News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.lcsun-news.com.

Copyright (c) 2006, Las Cruces Sun-News, N.M.

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