Quebec salmon tartare allergy case sparks Canada-wide calls for training

A stock image of salmon tartare. Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New York Culinary Experience

TORONTO – There are calls for mandatory training of restaurant wait staff after police said a severely allergic man was served salmon tartare at a Quebec eatery, putting him in hospital for days.

Laurie Harada, executive director of Food Allergy Canada, says food establishments must do a better job of educating all staff about allergens — both inside and outside of the kitchen.

WATCH: Police probe Quebec waiter after salmon tartare left allergic client in hospital 
Click to play video: 'Food allergy mix-up leads to charges against Quebec waiter'
Food allergy mix-up leads to charges against Quebec waiter

“Clearly something very catastrophic happened in this case and this poor man had this awful, awful incident, but we’ve got an opportunity now, too, to see something better come out of this,” says Harada.

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Her concerns are echoed by Toronto chef and George Brown College culinary instructor Jason Inniss, who notes that wait staff must deal directly with allergic patrons and pass on crucial information to the kitchen.

Inniss says restaurants generally have clear policies on how to handle allergens, with many writing notes about specific allergies when orders are passed to the cooks. Plus, restaurants typically have daily pre-service meetings meant to inform all staff members of changes to the menu, suppliers and ingredients, in part so tragedies don’t occur.

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But accidents happen.

Police in an eastern Quebec town are investigating a young restaurant employee for alleged criminal negligence.

Sherbrooke police say a man ordered beef tartare at a local restaurant last May and specified numerous times to a waiter that he was allergic to both seafood and salmon.

A short time later, police say a plate of salmon tartare was brought to the table and the patron took a bite, unaware of what he’d been served because the lighting had been dimmed.

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Police have not identified the waiter and the allegations have not been proven.

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Quebec Restaurant Association vice-president Francois Meunier says possible criminal charges would set a precedent. Meunier, whose organization represents 5,000 Quebec restaurant owners, suggests that eateries could end up refusing to serve customers with food allergies.

Toronto chef Roger Mooking says he hopes the case makes owner/operators more careful when it comes to allergies.

“It’s safe to say there will be a heightened mindfulness at the very least across the board,” says the celebrity chef, known for appearances on Food Network Canada.

“I think if you’re an operator that isn’t paying attention and doesn’t have a heightened awareness about it, or a mindfulness about it, moving forward you’ve got to think twice about being an operator.”

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An official with TrainCan Inc., which provides food safety courses for establishments across the country, says all provinces require training for managers and certain staff except Ontario, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador, where select cities have their own requirements.

Monira Kayhan says the courses are largely targeted at owner/operators and managers, but the intent is that the information is passed down to the rest of the staff.

The big chains tend to be “more diligent” in their training, she says, but when there’s a requirement in place, everybody has to follow it, she notes.

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Lawyer and allergy advocate Elizabeth Goldenberg says she’d like to see broader mandated training “beyond just knowing the word allergy and that some people are allergic.”

“And just how life-threatening an allergy can be. I think a lot of people might be thinking about seasonal-type allergies where your eyes might itch and your nose might run, but with a severe food allergy a person can go from seeming to be fine to dead in 10 minutes,” she says from London, Ont.

Hospitality and tourism professor Andy Hickl-Szabo of George Brown College says he tells his students to think about whether they’ve taken every measure to ensure the safety of their patrons.

“If something bad happens, in six months from now when you’re standing in front of a judge explaining it, what are you going to sound like?” he says.

“If you can say, for example, that you’ve documented that, ‘We have X number of hours of training and in that training we talk about food intolerances and allergies and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and these are the protocols and these are the steps and everyone does it and so on and so forth,’ that’s going to sound a lot better than, ‘I didn’t know.'”

— With files from Louis Cloutier in Montreal.

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