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Food For Thought - How Allergic Reactions Can Cause Sting A Business

By: Dan Weedin

Unless you own a restaurant or catering business, or regularly supply food to the public, you might think that you don't have any liability exposure when it comes to people with food allergies. I would have thought that was true, too, until I had an allergic reaction at a business open house I attended. I didn't realize that a flavor enhancer I'm allergic to was an ingredient in a seasoning used in the potato salad. This experience caused me to reevaluate my thinking on allergies and liability.

Wondering if you have any exposure? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

1Do I ever host chamber of commerce after-hours events?

2Do I ever host appreciation dinners or parties for customers and vendors?

3Do I ever provide a catered lunch or dinner for an office party or educational function, like a "Lunch and Learn"?

I am willing to bet that most businesses stage an event of this type at some point. OK...I know what you're saying. The meal is being catered, so it falls on the shoulders of the caterer or restaurant, right? Yes...and no.

If you hire someone to cater an event, you are responsible for liability, too. In addition, as a "prudent" business, you are just as accountable to make sure the public and your employees are informed of potential issues. And what about potlucks at work? It's a good idea to ask people if they have food allergies so the food preparers can take that into account.

Now, I don't want you to overanalyze this. But I do want you to be proactive. Most people who suffer from allergic reactions already know what foods to stay away from. Here are some tips on easy things you can do to help them:

1.Most everyone knows about the big-name allergies out there, namely, nuts, shellfish, and MSG (monosodium glutamate). I have a friend who gets violently ill from flax, so add that to your list, too. Ask your caterer to identify any dishes with these ingredients. Even better, if these ingredients aren't used, you might advertise that, too. I have seen many restaurants do this and it is a value to those partaking in the cuisine.

2.Make sure your first aid kit has an injectable dose of epinephrine (such as the EpiPen®) and an allergy relief medicine that contains diphenhydramine (like Benadryl®). These remedies can provide immediate help for a person experiencing an allergic reaction. However, keep in mind that you can't be the one to administer these treatments, although you can have them available.

3.Make sure you have at least one staff member present who is certified in CPR and first aid. This is a best practice situation.

One final note for you restaurateurs and caterers. My own allergy is to MSG, so I always ask if the food I'm about to order contains it. Twice in the last month, the person helping me didn't know - and upon checking found out it did. Train your staff to be aware of food allergies and the ingredients and foods you serve that might trigger them. It could be a matter of saving someone from serious illness. Not to mention limiting your own liability.

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