Panera Disaster: The Food Allergy Lawsuit & What Went Wrong

If you follow food allergy news, then you’ve likely seen the story that made headlines last week in Boston and beyond: a grilled cheese sandwich made with peanut butter by a Panera Bread store in Natick, MA and served to a young girl with a (twice) disclosed peanut allergy. The family of the girl is now suing Panera Bread for negligence. While the issue of responsibility may seem cut and dry, there are some interesting facets of this story that warrant closer inspection.

For those who haven’t read about the case, here are some of the facts as they’ve been reported by the Boston Globe and others. (AllergyEats has not interviewed any of the parties involved.) A Natick, MA family placed an online takeout order with their local Panera Bread franchisee; part of the order included grilled cheese for their then 5-year-old daughter. The girl’s mother noted, in two different places on the online form, that the grilled cheese was for someone with a peanut allergy. After the order was picked up and brought home, the little girl bit into the sandwich and tasted peanut butter. Upon inspection, the girl’s father saw that there were about two teaspoons of peanut butter on the grilled cheese sandwich.

Grilled Cheese with peanut butter (as seen in the Boston Globe)

Grilled Cheese made with peanut butter (as seen in the Boston Globe)

The girl initially didn’t show “serious symptoms,” so the parents called their family pediatrician who suggested the child be given Benadryl. After she later vomited, the young girl’s concerned parents took her to a local hospital, where, just as she was preparing to be discharged, she broke out in hives all over her body. She was given epinephrine and kept overnight. Subsequently, when the girl’s father later called the restaurant to discuss what had occurred, a restaurant manager claimed that a “language issue” was the cause of the problem.

Making this story even more interesting is that it is alleged that a similar incident happened at a Panera Bread owned by the same franchisee in a neighboring town (Wayland, MA) less than a month later. This situation was supposedly posted on a popular Facebook food allergy support group page by the mother of the food-allergic child involved, but was eventually removed. The family involved in that incident declined to be part of this lawsuit. Regardless, given the unlikelihood that two grilled cheese sandwiches would be made with peanut butter within a month of each other and in nearby locations – both served to peanut-allergic customers – questions are being raised by the food allergy community and being asked by the Boston Globe: “Have these been deliberate actions?” Many are saying they have to be, with the logic that putting peanut butter on grilled cheese is unusual and suspect. Others are taking the opposite opinion, unwilling to believe that people would conspire like that. As for me, I’ll say what I believe is the truth: “We don’t know.” Everyone is certainly entitled to his or her opinion, but personally, I am unwilling to make this leap without evidence. Assuming the lawsuit moves forward, we may learn more. Either way, the fact that this happened twice is, well, doubly disturbing!

So what is going on? Is Panera unique or can this happen anywhere? Is it even safe to dine out with food allergies at all?

The quick answer is that it is just as “safe” for a food-allergic individual to dine out now as it was a week ago… and safer than a year ago and even more so versus five years ago. Yet, we will never get to a place where we can expect “allergy-safe” dining (which is why AllergyEats always says “allergy-friendly”) because there can never be a guarantee of safety anywhere. Humans run the restaurants and unfortunately humans make mistakes. When those of us with food allergies dine out, there is naturally some level of risk involved, so it’s necessary to take precautions in order to be as safe as we can possibly be.

With that said, why do most of us dine out successfully (i.e. with no reaction) almost all of the time? The reason is that, for a failure to occur, MULTIPLE steps in the “food allergy dance” we have with the restaurant must break down.

Let’s look at how these steps work when everything is done right.

  • First, the food-allergic individual enters the restaurant, always carrying epinephrine!
  • Then, the individual discloses his or her allergy to a staff member, keeping an eye open for any signs of discomfort from the staff member about serving an individual with food allergies.
  • If all is as it should be, that staff member, as well as all other staff in the restaurant, has previously been trained in what to do when a food-allergic guest enters, so he or she puts in motion whatever communications protocol that restaurant has in place.
  • At the time of ordering, the restaurant is able to share with the guest what ingredients are in the various menu items (even if consultation with the kitchen or labels is needed) and where there might be risk of cross-contact.
  • After the food-allergic patron orders, that order is passed to the kitchen with a visual and verbal notification of the diner’s food allergies, again in keeping with the restaurant’s standard protocols.
  • The kitchen then follows their practiced procedures on how to cook that diner’s meal, avoiding contamination from any of the individual’s allergens.
  • When finished, the chef flags the plate as the one for the food-allergic guest and the front-of-the-house staff delivers it specifically to the guest.
  • The guest then inspects the meal for any easy visual signs of a mistake or even less obvious signs that they should double-check what was served.
  • And if everything works as it should – as it does most of the time – the food-allergic individual enjoys his or her meal with no problem!

 With all of that to get right, how is it that so FEW diners end up in the ER?

The answer is that there are checks and balances among the many steps listed above that allow mistakes to be caught most of the time before a dangerous situation occurs. In reality, MULTIPLE steps of this process need to break down for a potentially tragic error!

I’ll use my own family’s experiences as an example. The only time we ever had a food-allergy accident at a restaurant, it was actually our fault for mis-ordering. (Staff aren’t mind readers. If you don’t disclose your allergies clearly, then that is one step of the process that could cause a serious problem by itself.) However, we’ve been SERVED the wrong food many, many times. On most of those occasions, we caught the problem ourselves by inspecting the food (even asking questions about something that “seemed” wrong). So where one step went wrong in the above scenario, another step caught the problem. Similarly, we had a waitress catch TWO mistakes by the chef in one of our meals (at Disney World, no less), again showing the checks and balances in this process and how they prevent catastrophes. Some restaurants make it easy by delivering food-allergic diners’ meals on different colored or different shaped plates. Thus, if the food-allergic diner doesn’t get that special plate, they can catch an error. And at the end of the day, the most important way to prevent a fatal reaction is by adhering to Step 1 – always carry your epinephrine!

What broke down in the Panera case?

Well, it seems… A LOT. I don’t like assigning blame; I’d rather analyze what went wrong and determine how it can be avoided in the future. Having spent the last six years reading thousands of reviews from food-allergic diners about places that can – and can’t – accommodate, coupled with countless conversations with restaurateurs and food-allergic patrons, here’s my perspective on what went wrong in the Panera case:

  1. While many of us – including me – order food online, we have to be aware that it involves an extra layer of risk. Given that we are not in front of the person we are entrusting with our order, it’s not as easy to assess if they truly understand the extent of our dietary restrictions. Body language and a confident exchange of questions and answers tend to be key indicators as to whether someone “gets it” or not, but of course we lose those cues when ordering online. Further, almost all online ordering systems do not have a specific place to signify food allergies, so people need to enter them in the Special Instructions section, which may not flag a ticket as prominently as it should for a food-allergic guest. (This is why AllergyEats hasn’t yet offered online ordering on its app or website.) So “Mistake #1,” which should really be titled “Elevated Risk #1,” was the family ordering online.

    Panera order ticket

    Panera order ticket with food allergy instructions (as seen on BostonGlobe.com)

  2. In fact, “Mistake #1” REALLY should have been choosing to eat at Panera Bread in the first place! One of AllergyEats’ Dining Tips is to “do research in advance of dining out”. If the family had done this, they may have realized that Panera has a bad reputation for their inability to properly accommodate food-allergic guests, earning them a very low 3.0 chain-wide AllergyEats allergy-friendliness rating overall, and a slightly higher 3.05 for those with a peanut allergy. Moreover, there have been extensive social media discussions citing numerous negative experiences at Panera Bread restaurants. It is clear that Panera’s management – unlike many other restaurants and chains – does NOT make accommodating food-allergic guests a priority. With so many other choices, it would have been advisable to get a better dining recommendation.
  3. To its credit, Panera does have food allergy disclaimers on their website saying “Many of our products contain or may come into contact with common allergens…” and “Please note that we cannot guarantee that any of our menu items are free of allergens because we use shared equipment and handle common allergens throughout our supply chain and bakery-café.” (They have signs to this effect in their stores as well, though that doesn’t apply here since it was a take-out order.) However, I challenge everyone to go to Panera’s home page and try to find the Allergen & Nutrition page that shares this information. Unlike other websites where it is easy to find, trying to find this page is like trying to navigate a maze. And if a visitor to the website doesn’t KNOW it’s there, the likely assumption will be that they have no allergy information whatsoever.
  4. If the manager of the Natick restaurant is being truthful that there was a “language issue” that caused the problem, I think the next breakdown at the restaurant is obvious. Regardless of ethnicity, background, or any other factors that could cause difficulty in communications and understanding, it is the restaurant’s responsibility to insure that a disclosed food allergy condition is properly communicated, along with the meal, from the front-of-the-house to the kitchen and back again.
  5. As already noted, the Panera Bread chain clearly does not have the training or policies & procedures in place to confidently manage a food allergy order and keep it free from cross-contamination. That much is clear from their public statements and in their diner reviews on AllergyEats. Even worse, however, is the fact that the kitchen put a significant amount of peanut butter on a grilled cheese sandwich – clearly a deliberate decision, even if it wasn’t a malicious one. The bottom line is that a lack of training and procedures & protocols can lead to dangerous situations.
  6. Another missed opportunity to catch the error was in not double-checking the order upon receiving it (to the extent it was possible). As mentioned earlier, I – and I’m sure most of you – have been served incorrect meals many times, but caught them before a bite was taken. In my 18 years with food-allergic children, I can say this has happened to us dozens of times. I do confess though to having missed one by not inspecting a sub sandwich served to one of my sons with a dairy allergy. Inside? Cheese. I can see where inspecting grilled cheese may be difficult given that the cheese keeps the bread together, just as inspecting certain other foods may be nearly impossible as ingredients aren’t necessarily so prominent, but however and whenever possible, the food-allergic patron needs to inspect his or her food for any signs of food allergens. Or, at the very least, have a brief conversation with the wait staff one last time to confirm that your order is, in fact, your allergen-free meal. That is harder, yet certainly not impossible, to do when picking up a take-out order.
  7. Finally, some have criticized the family for not immediately giving epinephrine – viewing that as yet another mistake in this story. However, with no significant signs of distress, many of us would likely have chosen a route similar to the one they chose: Benadryl. (Not to mention that the family received this advice from their trusted pediatrician.) Unfortunately, these types of delayed-onset reactions are tricky and scary – I unfortunately have first-hand experience. Having epinephrine on hand was key, as it could’ve saved their daughter’s life if anaphylactic progression took hold quickly. The family handled it well by knowing when it was time for the ER and letting the professionals take over.

What can we learn from the Panera case?

The bottom line is that there were a multitude of steps that broke down in this process. And generally, tragic mistakes only occur when there are MULTIPLE breakdowns, usually by both parties. OUR responsibility, as food-allergic diners, is to bring epinephrine with us everywhere, always disclose allergies (don’t get lazy, make assumptions or trust allergen charts alone as they can’t prevent cross-contamination), and inspect our meal to the best of our ability. I also believe that choosing a more allergy-friendly restaurant, as determined by feedback from the community, will lessen (though not eliminate) risk.

I said it earlier – I’m not a blamer. That’s not to say there isn’t blame – I’d just rather focus on what went wrong and how everyone can do their part to avoid potential tragedies in the future.

My heart is with this little girl as I have seen so many children develop the kind of food anxiety her parents say she is now experiencing. So if we want to blame, let’s at least pause first to be thankful that she’s alive and think about the struggles she may face.

I know there are a wide variety of opinions on this and many may think I’m not hard enough on one party or another. I encourage your comments, opinions, and criticisms below.

Comments

    Author:
    alain briancon
    Written:


    i wonder if the restaurant should not have two bags, one for “normal” food, one for “special preparation” food (i know the terms are not that good). on the special preparation, the steps for inspection you describe should be printed in bold terms so the family is reminded to check. Along the preparation staff as well.

    Author:
    Diane Chinatti
    Written:


    So very upsetting to have this happen in this time. My 23 year old son is anaphylactic to eggs, nuts, may contain or anything that has one of this triggers.
    When he was about 5, I went to Dunkin Donuts and asked, over and over if the donut he wanted had eggs, they assured me it did not, I asked many times.
    It was a desert so after dinner he began to eat, 2 bites in, “I do not feel good.” One epi at home and another 2 in the emergency room, Scariest night of my life! The next day I called and all the manager said is it is had to get good help. I told him they need to label, may contain or, tell customers they do not know when asked about ingredients!!!!! My ex was going to sue the franchise for neglect. He kept the box on top of the fridge for many months but he never went through with the lawsuit.
    I am so saddened that this still goes on with so many more children being diagnosed every day. I pray for all restaurants to take it seriously and to become educated!

    Author:
    the dark side
    Written:


    Panera is not low on the accommodation scale – they are realistic. They deal with bread crumbs and therefore cannot guarantee that any meal is gluten free nor are they going to try. It would be like someone with a soy allergy like myself going into Joe’s tofu house for a meal -what would be the point? I give them credit for giving their clients realistic expectations instead of bogus claims (like I don’t know Red Robin who has yet to tell me what has soy and what does not or Red Lobster where no information is available.)

    Author:
    Myrna in CT
    Written:


    I recently went into a Panera for a quick snack and noticed they had lobster roll. As I waited for the manager to tell me if what I ordered could be cross-contaminated by lobster, as I have a shellfish allergy, I realized I was beginning to have an attack solely from the lobster particles in the air. The manager was sympathetic, but couldn’t tell me positively that there would not be cross-contamination and I thought the better of being there, grabbed a container of fruit salad and ate outside. Panera hasn’t been high on my list for quite a while, but it’s now completely off it.

    Author:
    Karen
    Written:


    I have a soy allergy and tried to dine at Panera. I thought by reading the allergen menu I would be able to pick a safe choice. WRONG!

    After getting sick about twenty minutes after I finished eating I decided to take a closer look on their Website which lists ingredients instead of just safe choices for people with certain allergies.

    The soup I chose to eat, which the quick look allergen menu said was safe, actually has soy listed as an ingredient on the ingredients list. Other items also were listed to contain soy that were supposed to be safe.

    I don’t blame a restaurant for not wanting to be responsible for people with allergies, but I do expect that their safe choices would actually be safe and consistent with their ingredient lists.

    I do not go there and think that no one with an allergy should dine there.

    Author:
    Janelle Reagan
    Written:


    I would never bring my pn/tn allergic child to a Panera. Far too much risk based on the fact that I know there are nuts and peanut butter everywhere. Those parents took an awful chance and paid dearly for it, unfortunately. I’m glad their daughter is ok, but that’s why we avoid places like Dunkin Donuts and Dairy Queen, and bakeries in general.

    Author:
    Kathy
    Written:


    I agree with most of what you stated. We find it easier to just not eat out or order in except for a few select restaurants, and that list does not include Panera.

    Author:
    SC
    Written:


    This also happened to us in May at Miller’s Ale House in Watertown. My son has allergies to dairy and tree nuts which were discussed with the waitress. My husband wanted to order a hamburger for my son, but asked that the ingredients of the bun be checked. The waitress checked with the kitchen and said the bun was fine. My son ate the burger and developed a reaction with hives, rash, wheezing and had to use the epi pen. He landed in the ER at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton, MA.
    When we tried to speak to the manager, they were not reachable. The next day we spoke to the chef (who was not there the day before) and asked to see the packaging for ingredients. He disappeared into the kitchen and returned saying there was no packaging as they through it all away when the breads are delivered. So the bun was ok’d without actually checking anything. When we called the company that makes the buns, we found out not only did they contain dairy but a heavy dose of it.
    We are still dealing with trying to straighten this out. Just wanted to also share our experience of what can happen even when you think you’ve checked things out.

    Author:
    Meaghan Verri
    Written:


    My family steers clear of Panera. If you take a look inside, you will notice how easy it is for items to be contaminated with something you are allergic to. I don’t have allergies, but I would never feel comfortable taking my food allergic children in there to dine. Nuts and seeds, are rampant inside! I long for the day when food establishments have a better protocol for dealing with allergies. Every year, it certainly does get easier to manage. More awareness is spread and we can feel somewhat normal. On a lighter note, I think my family is healthier because of these food allergies. We don’t have the liberty of eating donuts, candy and ice cream at every stop 😉

    Author:
    Marie Porter
    Written:


    After one too many eating out issues, my husband went on line and found an allergy website. He was able to have business like cards made up. There were cards for all different allergies. The card is in reds and white. It says I have a seafood, shellfish allergy and also spells out about cross containment issues. I give this to the waitress to give to the kitchen and before you know it the chef or manager is at my table. I find that a visual aid is better than just telling a waitress

    Author:
    adrian
    Written:


    Panera’s website has the allergen and nutrition on the bottom of their menu page.

    Author:
    Paul Antico
    Written:


    With all due respect, I still can’t find the allergen and nutrition info unless I Google it specifically. In fact, Panera’s website doesn’t even have a menu page! Hover on menu and you get drop-down options – none of which say Nutrition or Allergen information as almost all other restaurant websites do. Go to the printable menus… and nothing. Go to the “Eat Well, Your Way” menus… and they do have gluten-free, but no allergen info. At the very bottom of that image-rich page, they do have a link to the “Full Nutrition Information Guide”, but even that has nothing related to allergies. So as far as finding the list, I still can’t do so if I start at the home page. As it turns out, Panera does list allergens in each menu item if you want to click them one-by-one, but that’s unconventional and not intuitive since most restaurants know that no one has time to do that. (And, as an aside, their grilled cheese of course does not list peanut as an included allergen.)

    Author:
    Jen
    Written:


    As a mother of a peanut, tree nut, dairy, egg, beef, banana, shell-fish, and sesame boy, I would never even dream of ordering him something from a panera, dunkin donuts, or the like. Ordering online as you said in your article is too risky. You need to be able to speak to someone face to face and see if they “get it.” Many times we have brought our own food to a restaurant, and only when we were reassured they could accommodate would we order for my son. You do not play with your child’s life, especially over a grilled cheese.

    Author:
    Nikki
    Written:


    Anyone who has a child with a nut allergy should know not to trust paneras bakery bread or the area they are preparing a grilled cheese on. And to place an order online is even adding to the increased risk of a reaction.

    Author:
    David
    Written:


    I went to the Panera site, and checked the menu/nutrition guide. The contents listed for a grilled cheese sandwich are, unsurprizingly, bread and cheese. The allergens listed are dairy and wheat.

    If peanut butter were supposed to be an ingredient, peanut should have been listed, and was not.

    Seems to me this was a local enhancement. Do folks in Boston usually add peanut butter to their grilled cheese?

    I note that the peanut butter is just dropped on, doesn’t seem spread around. I would be suspicious that this was a deliberate and malicious action.

    Author:
    Paul Antico
    Written:


    David, while I originally laughed at your comment, I then realized that it’s a very legitimate and smart question to ask. (Coming from someone who grew up in NY where McD only put ketchup on burgers, then moving to Boston where I was disgusted at the ketchup AND mustard.)
    The simple answer is no. There is nothing native to the Boston area that would suggest peanut butter on grilled cheese.

    Author:
    AW
    Written:


    I’m a parent of a 4 yr old who has 6 severe food allergies. I empathize with this family and the heartbreak they must have gone through in this situation. Many of us have had similar experiences that brought our children’s allergens to light but we don’t know the experience of this family and when and how many times they’ve had to use the epi-pen or rush her to the ER. Some parents and many family members DO NOT understand the difference between getting an itchy mouth (only) vs. anaphylaxis from eating a food one is allergic to, and if they do, some often go through seeing a loved one suffer in the ER with life threatening symptoms before they understand.

    The Panera staff were well intentioned, but if a language barrier/complication existed, it is easy to see how the staff preparing the food may only have interpreted the online order as adding PB to a grilled cheese. Just about every American will know that nobody puts PB on grilled cheese, at least at a restaurant. But if English is not your first language, and/or you barely speak or read English, this mistake would be easy to make.

    Also, the staff seem to be victims of the Panera parent companies’ lack of clear and comprehensive policies for handling food orders for special requests and allergy sensitive customers. They’ve not only done a disservice to the family but also to anyone who wants to learn how to handle food in this industry. It is a shame that with the growing number of Americans who have food allergies restaurants would rather save money than create an awareness and accommodate customers like us.

    Author:
    Allen Mark
    Written:


    It is very sad that these things somehow happen to us no matter how hard we try to avoid it as we have to be dependent on others in many circumstances. In this case, the seller should have more concerned for their customers by having a more responsible approach in every step of the food delivering process.

    Author:
    Sharon Breedlove
    Written:


    It is very interesting how I had a similar problem at another chain restaurant, but in Columbia, MD.

    I am gluten-sensitive, so I ordered a certain ham and cheese sandwich at two or three separate visits. I realized in time that the bread was most certainly not gluten-free.

    When I called the manager over, he apologized to me, and said it was a language miscommunication.

    Is this part of a pattern that is happening to others who can (carefully) patronize restaurants? Is this a ploy to wash their hands of responsibility, so they won’t get sued? I understand mistakes done once, but two or three times?

    Author:
    Megan
    Written:


    I work at a panera bread and have for about 4 years now. We are (at least my store is) very strict with our allergy protocol and always have been. I can see there were definitely skipped steps in this case. Whenever there is an allergy told to us or it shows up on our screen from a rapid pickup (online order) we are required to go get a manager first thing before anything is started. They then talk to the customer if they are in the drive thru or in the store and then make everyone on the line making food wash hands and change gloves. This also takes place everytime we make a peanut butter and jelly, or touch nuts. We then make the food and bag it or plate it up immediately. All food is made on the plate it will go out to the customer on or on a new sandwich paper or salad box that it will be wrapped in. Nothing is made straight on counter tops to avoid cross contamination. We work very hard to make sure stuff like this doesn’t happen. I wish more stores would be like my home store in Kentucky.

    Author:
    MR
    Written:


    Food looks very good! But!

    Food looks good but no guarantee! Well in my experience means most of food is brought in and reheated! So wouldn’t eat there. Having allergies you learn quick which restaurants are clean and actually make food.

    If a restaurant, when you walk in! Can’t guarantee allergin free! well you know it’s not fresh made

    Just makes it so difficult when travelling! Cause where is there to eat??

    Wished a company like panera was actually upfront. Cause then I wouldn’t be living on fries!

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