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Should Minnesota Do More To Prevent Food Allergy Deaths?

BEMIDJI, Minn. (WCCO) -- A Minnesota family is suing a restaurant for what they consider a fatal mistake.

Scott Johnson died last summer after eating pancakes at a Bemidji restaurant. He suffered from a severe dairy allergy since birth. The Johnson's said they were told the restaurant's gluten-free pancakes were also dairy-free.

The family now wants more to be done to keep other kids with serious allergies safe, and WCCO found many believe the state should do more. As a mother of a son with severe food allergies, Nona Narvaez doesn't spend much time looking at menus.

"Milk and eggs, beef pork, most of the tree nuts, fish and shell fish, Narvaez said. "It's impossible. It's absolutely impossible," she said.

There are only a few places in the state Max Narvaez can get a meal.  Since he was born, Narvaez has been trying to make Minnesota safer for the estimated 60,000 kids with similar circumstances.

As executive director for the Anaphylaxis Food Allergy Association, her non-profit helped to get life-saving epinephrine in all ambulances a dozen years ago.  The medicine releases adrenaline that allows the body to relax and breathe.

Now, she's working to get it in more public places: Schools, movie theaters and restaurants.

"Having immediate access is very important because reactions can turn fatal very quickly," Narvaez said.

food allergy generic
(credit: CBS)

But advocates believe more needs to be done beyond having that medicine on-hand. In Minnesota, every restaurant must have a food manager.  Only that person is required to go through a basic allergy training session.  Some food safety experts think everyone in the kitchen needs more comprehensive training to know how serious allergies can be.

Lars Johnson has been a food safety trainer for 20 years.  He worries most about teenage workers taking allergies seriously.

"You can't see the allergen. You can see a peanut but you can't see the proteins in a peanut that will make someone have an anaphylactic reaction," Lars Johnson said.

But, Johnson said he believes if kitchens are serious about making their food safe it comes down to a culture change.

"If a customer has a concern around food allergies that's the most important concern they have right now," Johnson said.

All Davanni's chains offer different menu options for some of the most common allergies, and the restaurants prepare those foods in areas away from other orders.

"In this particular store in Edina the best area they've found to make them and prep them is in the walk-in cooler," Ken Schelper with Davanni's said.

"Our job is to be as up front and direct and detailed as we can about what our ingredients are, what our processes are and details so they can make an informed decision," he said.

It's a decision Narvaez thinks should be made easier everywhere.

"We're just trying to make a community that's safer and more empathetic,"  Narvaez said.

A bill that would get epinephrine in more public places in Minnesota has been drafted this legislative session.  It has its first committee meeting on Friday. Right now, Massachusetts is the only state that requires restaurants to train all of their staff how to handle allergy orders.

Here's a list of allergy-friendly restaurants in Minnesota.
Allergy Eats
Minnesota Food Allergy Association

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