Approximately half of fatal food allergy reactions are triggered by food consumed outside the home. Read how one mother in Michigan is pushing for a state law that would require restaurants to list the eight most common allergens next to the items on their menus — peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. Michigan already has laws in place to require restaurant management training and for schools to stock epi-pens for use on anyone in an emergency.
By Kristen Jordan Shamus
Elias Habib says he wants to be a doctor someday "to help people feel better."
The 6-year-old dimple-cheeked boy from Rochester knows what it is like to feel sick. He's allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. Eating even a trace amount can send his little body into a dangerous tailspin: He vomits and sneezes. He gets a rash. His eyes turn red and tear up. His nose starts to run; he coughs and has trouble breathing.
It's a reaction that terrifies his parents, Tim and Christine Habib. They know it could kill him. That's why Christine Habib is on a mission to make the world — or at least Michigan — a safer place for her son. She's pushing for a state law that would require restaurants to list the eight most common allergens next to the items on their menus — peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish.
"Food allergies are real," Christine Habib said as she played Legos on the floor with Elias and his younger brother, Joseph, on a snowy mid-February evening. "They are completely and 100% real. I understand that there are parents out there who can't grasp how serious a food allergy is. But, unfortunately, a seemingly harmless food like a peanut can kill my son."
And it almost did. In late October, the Habibs ordered takeout from a small Middle Eastern chain restaurant near their home. Christine Habib says she mentioned when she placed the order that her son has nut allergies and asked whether any nuts were in the sandwich she chose for him.
She was assured there were none. When she picked up the order, she says she again verified with the cook and the person at the cash register that the sandwich was free of nuts. But soon after Elias ate it, he got violently ill. It turns out, there were peanuts in the marinade used on the meat in the sandwich.
After vomiting, Elias' eyes turned red, he got a rash and began to cough and sneeze, and the Habibs knew they had only a few minutes to get him to the hospital.
"Honestly, I felt like it was really a wake-up call, what happened to us," Christine Habib said. "We're one of the fortunate ones because my son is still with us and still here."
Belinda Vaca wasn't so lucky. Her only child, Sergio Lopez, died in June after eating takeout from a Texas restaurant that also assured him there were no peanuts in the taco he ordered.
"I never thought my son would die of this," said Vaca, who noted that Sergio, who was 24 when he died, had several serious reactions before his last, fatal one. "I guess I just didn't want to accept it."
Vaca is trying to get a similar law passed in Texas, and says she'll come to Michigan to support Habib, who has written to state lawmakers, and is working now on a petition drive to rally support for such a law.
Their efforts come after Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation in January that requires Michigan restaurants have a manager take a training course about food allergies, which affect 15 million Americans, and are a growing problem, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team, or FAACT. As many as two children in every U.S. classroom now have food allergies.
And for the first time last year, Michigan schools also were required to stock epinephrine pens, which, if injected during an allergic reaction, can slow the response long enough to get a child to the hospital.
"We're definitely making progress," said Habib. "If they're willing to do that, maybe they'll do this, too. I know the restaurant industry is a huge industry to tackle. But I've said it before. I can't just do nothing. I've got to at least give it a try."
Vaca is still grieving for her only child.
"I believe he's with other family members in heaven, and someday I'll see him again," she said. "Even though I'm a believer, I don't want this to ever happen to anybody else again. So, I want to do my best to be in advocacy for people with peanut allergies and other allergies. And educate people, make people aware of this, so it won't ever happen again. That's my goal in life."
Karen Harris, who owns a Japanese sushi restaurant in Georgia and is vice president of restaurant and food industry Services for FAACT, says eating out is the most dangerous to allergic people.
"Studies report that approximately half of fatal food allergy reactions are triggered by food consumed outside the home," she said.
Harris said some well-known chain restaurants already have special menus for people with food allergies, lauding Red Robin, Olive Garden, and P.F. Chang's, among others. While that's a big deal for food allergy sufferers, it's still no guarantee that the food they're served will be safe.
"Even with new laws being adopted and policy being developed in many restaurant and food-service establishments, this is not a guarantee that the food-allergic individual will be provided a safe meal," she said. "Food-allergic individuals must always be prepared for an emergency."
That means always carrying an epinephrine pen and other emergency medications, by being certain the restaurant staff knows about the allergy, and repeatedly asking whether the food was properly prepared.
"Mistakes do occur in the industry, especially during peak hours — which often creates a high-paced and stressful environment for restaurant employees," Harris said. "I don't feel we can just create a law and then everyone who has a food allergy can say, 'Oh, this is going to make them safe for us.' There's a part everyone needs to play. Everyone needs to understand they have a responsibility.
"It's going to be a process, and it's going to take action from everyone involved — the restaurant associations, the food-allergy community and the advocacy organizations, to make sure we're creating resources to provide establishments with the tools they need."
Justin Winslow, vice president of government affairs for the Michigan Restaurant Association, said he hasn't seen Habib's proposal, but noted that 2014 was a huge year for Michigan in terms of food-allergy awareness and change.
"We had a pretty productive yearlong discussion on this issue, involving all of the stakeholders, including several parents of children with severe, life-threatening food allergies. We went through this process, and we passed a law that really makes Michigan on the cutting edge — we're one of only three states that require this education. We've gone through this exercise, and while I understand where she's coming from, I really think we need to give this law a chance."
Tim Habib said that while some people would say the solution is for people with food allergies to just stay home, and never eat out, that isn't realistic, and doesn't solve the problem.
"It's really impacted our lifestyle. ... We used to like dining out a lot, but now it's very much a scary proposition for us," he said. "It's just so hard to trust. There's so many marinades and sauces that a lot of people who work in restaurants don't know about, and there's also ingredients bought in from third-party vendors. Not everything is made from scratch.
"It's also affected the way we vacation, too. Mexico is not an option anymore because there's a language barrier, and every time we go out to eat, we won't be able to explain that our son has a peanut allergy. So, our hope is that we can affect some type of change where we'll feel safe some day."
Christine Habib said she isn't asking restaurants to change what they serve or divulge recipes. She'd just like some transparency for people who could die if they eat the wrong thing.
"Currently, there are no guidelines to ensure customer safety in regard to food allergies except a disclaimer at the bottom of a menu that usually states to tell your server if you have any food allergies," Christine Habib said. "I did that and it wasn't enough to avoid" Elias' serious reaction.
"As his mom, it's my responsibility to speak up for him. He can't speak for himself right now. If this means that it's a safer future for him and others living with life-threatening allergies, then I'm going to try my best to do that. I feel like I can't just do nothing and just wait for something to happen. I'm going to try to make it happen myself, even if it seems impossible."