Charging waiter in allergy mix-up will make life difficult for restaurants, association warns

Prosecutors in Quebec risk radically altering the relationship between restaurants and their customers if they decide to charge a waiter who served the wrong dish to a man with a severe food allergy, the provincial restaurant association said Friday.

Waiter could face criminal negligence charge after salmon tartare put patron in coma

A Sherbrooke, Que., waiter could face a charge of criminal negligence for mistakenly serving salmon tartare to a customer with a seafood allergy. (iStock)

Prosecutors in Quebec risk radically altering the relationship between restaurants and their customers if they decide to charge a waiter who served the wrong dish to a man with a severe food allergy, the provincial restaurant association said Friday. 

The association was reacting to the possibility that a 22-year-old waiter at the Le Tapageur restaurant in Sherbrooke, Que., could be arraigned on a charge of criminal negligence following his arrest earlier this week. 

A police investigation was prompted by a complaint filed by Simon-Pierre Canuel, a Gatineau resident, who said he went into anaphylactic shock and had a cardiac arrest that left him in a coma for several days because he ate the salmon tartare instead of the beef tartare he had ordered.

It is not yet clear whether charges will be laid.

The restaurant industry is warning that people with food allergies could have a hard time getting service if the Crown goes ahead with the case.

"It would create an important precedent that we predict will have serious consequences," François Meunier, a vice-president of the restaurant association, told CBC News. "The relationship with people with allergies will change."

Meunier said it would be impossible for restaurants, and waiters in particular, to face the prospect of being arrested for honest mistakes. 

Simon-Pierre Canuel says he was in a coma for several days and 'almost died' after being served salmon by a waiter who was aware of his allergy. (Submitted by Simon-Pierre Canuel)

A mistake waiting to happen?

Given the hectic nature of most restaurants, some in the industry are surprised incidents like the one in Sherbrooke don't happen more often. 

"Communication between front of house and back of house tends to not go as smoothly as we would like in the allergy field," said Andrea Lobel Shainblum, an allergy consultant for restaurants. 

Preventing reactions to food allergies, she said, requires restaurants have streamlined communication protocols in place.

But according to one of the country's leading chefs, that might be easier said than done, given the lack of oversight and training in many restaurants.

"Anybody can be a restaurant manager.  Anybody can be a chef without a licence," David McMillan, who runs the popular restaurant Joe Beef, told CBC Montreal's Daybreak on Friday.

"People get foodborne illnesses all the time. People get cross-contamination illnesses. People end up in the hospital because there's fecal coliform in the salad, or the chef mixing the salad had pneumonia or a bad cold or the flu and passed it on to the whole dining room. These are common occurrences."

McMillan, who is allergic to peanuts and fish, said food allergies are "not something to be taken lightly."

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Industry standards

According to guidelines established by Quebec's restaurant association, at least one employee in every restaurant kitchen needs to have taken a course on hygiene and food safety. The course includes a section on food allergies.

The association also recommends that restaurants have an EpiPen on hand in case of an allergic reaction.

In the Sherbrooke case, Canuel had forgotten his EpiPen in the car.

Meunier, the restaurant association vice-president, said people with food allergies share a responsibility with the restaurant when it comes to their safety.

"When they leave their home and accept to eat in a public place they know they have to share their risk," he added.

Le Tapageur restaurant in Sherbrooke has become embroiled in controversy after one of its waiters mistakenly served a customer salmon tartare. (Radio-Canada)

The customer's responsibility?

Lori Medoff, a Montrealer with a severe allergy to seafood, said it's a "big challenge finding a restaurant that takes it seriously.

"I have a full discussion with the waiter before ordering everything," she said, but added that "it's also up to the person with an allergy to ensuring the food they are eating is safe."

She recounted an interaction with a server who insisted there were no traces of fish in Worcestershire sauce. It was only after showing him the ingredients on the bottle that she was able to convince him it contained anchovies.

On Thursday, several Sherbrooke residents said they would dine at Le Tapageur to show support for the restaurant.

Serving staff at other Sherbrooke restaurants also came out in defence of the waiter. Lysandre Vaugeois, who works at Auguste Restaurant, said a criminal investigation goes too far.

"People make mistakes," she said.

"I think it's a little the fault of both. I find that a criminal charge, it's a little intense."

With files from Radio-Canada and Alison Northcott


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