Why Do People With Peanut Allergies Eat In Thai Restaurants?

Published: 12th September 2006
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Severe food allergies are a life threatening condition. Often, even eating something that has been cooked or prepared with cooking implements that have been used with nuts or nut oils can result in a person going into anaphylactic shock. Without something like EpiPen, the adrenalin treatment used when this happens, a person can die, or suffer sever brain damage.

This is what happened to a Sydney woman over 15 years ago, before EpiPen was available in Australia. She and her husband liked Thai food, and apparently liked to eat in Asian restaurants in Newtown. Newtown is a busy suburb in Sydney, Australia, that has a lot of great Thai restaurants, as well as other cuisines. Richelle and her husband thought her peanut allergy was under control, so one night they went to a particular Thai restaurant in Newtown.

They spoke to the waiter, asking him if peanuts or peanut oil was in certain dishes. He went back to the kitchen, was evidently told no, which he relayed to them. They ordered some dishes. She started to feel unwell. The dishes must have had a trace of peanuts, which is no surprise as anyone who has ever eaten Asian food - Thai especially - will know that peanuts are used in many dishes. They are used as garnish. They are a central ingredient in many dishes such as the very common satay sticks that are available as an entree in every single Thai restaurant in Newtown - and I have been to basically every one, as I used to live there. And this couple was no stranger to Thai restaurants in Newton. And presumably when they were 'quizzing' restaurant staff, they noticed the satay sticks on the menu.

Perhaps they've never owned a small business, or worked in restaurants. But I have and I don't recall a separate area, with separate utensils, for cooking allergy-free dishes. It's common sense really - even 'big business', the big business who make chocolate bars, don't have a separate production area for their non-nut flavors. That is why the packets say, 'May contain traces of nuts'.

The restaurant staff did their best. They replied to their questions to the best of their knowledge. But there were still traces of nuts in the meal this lady ate. She left the restaurant feeling unwell, and went into anaphylactic shock. With no EpiPen, she went into a coma. She was saved by hospital staff, but with dreadful injuries that left her needing to be fed by a tube, wheelchair bound, and unable to speak for ten years. She has two daughters who have known their mother this way for most of their lives.

The family sued the restaurant, which is now out of business as a result. They say they did this to cover her medical costs, and they also say that they had "high hopes the celebrated case would wake people up to the potential devastation of food allergy".

Okay - I have some questions.

1. A family goes into a restaurant where peanuts are clearly used in many dishes, and they can see this on the menu, even if they had no idea about Asian food generally. However, this family actually knew about Asian food, by their own admission.

2. They say they went there thinking that, presumably, 'to the best of their knowledge', this lady's peanut allergy was under control. Yet, they now say, they hope this 'makes people wake up' to the devastating effect of food allergies. But, if their own knowledge of food allergies had been better at the time, they would perhaps never have walked into a restaurant that did not have a separate area, separate utensils, for preparing non-allergic food. So, to whom should that need to 'wake up' really apply? Should the responsibility for one's own personal health and safety lie with the individual, or everyone else? Who's choice was in to walk into a restaurant and eat food that could realistically have traces of peanuts in it?

3. A small business was put out of business as a result of an individual family's choices, which, in the wider view, could almost be termed, 'dicing with death'. Where does personal responsibility begin?

I think what happened to this lady and her family, the effects on her children not knowing their mother as she was, is terrible. But I also think it's terrible that the staff at this restaurant also have to live with the memory of what happened, and that the business itself was put out of business by a court case ruling in their (the family's) favor, because of the large compensation payout the family received.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that seems to abdicate personal responsibility on a daily basis. You only have to look at the types of cases that appear before the courts. In Australia, a man had severe neck and spinal injuries after he chose to swim outside the flags at a beach. He dived into a sandbank, injured himself, and successfully sued the local council.

Where does personal responsibility begin?

References: sunday.ninemsn.com.au/sunday/cover_stories/transcript_1770.asp

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