Allergy alert after near death by ice-cream

Esther Han
Sandra Surace and her son Robert, eight, who almost died after eating ice-cream.
Sandra Surace and her son Robert, eight, who almost died after eating ice-cream. Photo: Penny Stephens

A young boy's near-death allergic reaction to ice-cream has led to one of the heaviest fines for a food offence involving allergies in Australia and spurred his mother to campaign for major reforms in the restaurant and catering industry.

A Melbourne magistrates court this month fined a catering company $55,000 for serving Robert Surace, 8, a frozen dessert a waiter ''guaranteed'' was dairy-free. It was, in fact, vanilla ice-cream.

The ''frightening and enduring experience'' led Sandra Surace to call on the food service industry to overhaul its practices when it came to handling allergy requests.

''My son was violently ill and is still undergoing psychological trauma,'' she said. ''A loss of life, severe illness or brain damage cannot be overlooked due to someone's negligence to follow correct procedures or simply understand [anaphylaxis].''

Robert was at a wedding reception in April when he went into anaphylactic shock with a lick of the ice-cream.

The family, from suburban East Bentleigh had advised the venue of his allergies multiple times before the event and, during the evening, intervened when waiters served Robert pasta with parmesan cheese and steak with gravy.

In the car to the hospital he felt like he was being choked as welts and hives erupted on his body and his eyes and lips ballooned.

The magistrate convicted Manor on High in Epping of breaching Victoria's Food Act by ''falsely describing'' food with the knowledge the consumer relying on the information could ''suffer physical harm''.

No NSW business has paid more than $50,000 for a similar offence.


The case has intensified calls by allergy sufferers for the restaurant industry to take their condition more seriously.

Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia president Maria Said wants the introduction of a nationwide allergy management plan and compulsory allergy training for restaurant staff.

''Some food facilities have absolutely no idea what the legislation is. That puts allergy sufferers in a dangerous situation,'' she said.

But the industry's peak body Restaurant and Catering Australia rebuffed the calls, saying an agreement struck between the RCA and the allergy group through Food Standards Australia New Zealand last year was enough to reduce risk.

It required restaurants to know the ingredients and handle customers' allergy queries, said the RCA's chief executive John Hart.

''Our only responsibility is to serve customers the food they order,'' Mr Hart said.

Robert's reaction was so violent that, when he vomited, it poured through his nose. For weeks after, he suffered from stomach pains, became withdrawn and refused food to the point where he became iron deficient.

''I was worried if that was going to be my last day,'' he said. ''People need to understand allergies. It's not our choice that we can't have it. I'd like to eat everything but I can't.''

Manor on High owner Gezim Oxha said, within a month of the incident, employees were retrained, the manual updated and new protocols enforced.

''Every special dietary meal is now prepared by a dedicated person responsible for these special dishes and the dishes are marked with a coloured flag so a mix up of dishes cannot occur,'' he said.

''We have served over 4 million meals in the 25 years the Manor has been in our control and this was the first time an incident has occurred.''

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