Panera Sued for Dollop of Peanut Butter in Allergic Girl’s Grilled Cheese

The Boston Globe reports that last week, a Natick, Massachusetts family filed suit in Middlesex Superior Court against Panera and a group of Panera franchises.

The suit alleges that the mother, Elissa Russo, used Panera’s on-line system to order a grilled cheese sandwich for her 6 year old daughter with peanut-allergic daughter. In the order, Ms Russo noted in two separate locations that her daughter had a severe peanut allergy.

The father, John Russo, had just arrived home when the parents discovered that the sandwich their daughter had just bitten into contained a large dollop of peanut butter. As the mother frantically called the pediatrician, the girl repeatedly asked, “Am I going to Die?”

The doctor, noting that there were as yet no symptoms, told the mother to give her Benadryl. Later, when the daughter began vomiting, the pediatrician urged the parents to rush the girl to the emergency room. Later that evening, when the daughter was about to be discharged, she developed hives all over her body and was administered epinephrine. She was kept overnight and discharged the next morning.

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The manager of the Panera later apologized to Mr Russo, claiming the incident was caused by a “language issue”.

After learning of another similar incident that occurred a month later alleging that a child had ingested peanut butter from a nearby Panera in Wayland owned by the same Franchisee, the Russo family filed suit. The second incident was alleged in a post on the No Nuts Moms Group.

When contacted by the Globe, Mitchell Roberts, operating partner of the group that owns the franchises claimed he was unaware of the lawsuit and said: “They’re saying there were two different cases at two different restaurants of ours where someone ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and said they had a peanut allergy and they were served grilled cheese sandwiches with peanut butter in them?” Roberts asked. “That doesn’t sound feasible.”

Laurel Francoeur, the co-counsel that represents the Russo family, stated that the operating group should have known about the suit because Francoeur sent letters via certified mail describing both incidents to Panera’s corporate office as well as to Roberts and his partner, David Peterman, president of PR Management, the company that manages the franchisee’s outlets.

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Panera includes the following disclaimer on their website: “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-cafe.”

Mary Vargas, co-counsel for the Russo family, asserts: “This isn’t a cross contamination case,” involving accidental exposure to trace amounts of peanut dust. “There was a lot of peanut butter on this sandwich.”

The incident brings up three issues that are worth discussing with your allergist. The first is what to do in case of accidental ingestion of an allergen by a severely allergic individual before symptoms are present. Details should be included in an emergency action plan developed with a medical professional and always readily available so there is no question how to proceed in such an instance.

The second is whether to avoid eateries that are known to serve dishes containing your family’s allergen of concern. Know that there is always a possibility of cross-contact that depends not only on the diligence of the wait staff but also the training of the kitchen personnel, the layout of the kitchen and the protocols in place to prevent such issues.

Last, but not least, always be aware of the possibility of a biphasic reaction where the initial symptoms of a severe reaction seem to abate only to have a second reaction occur minutes or hours later.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. This is extremely disappointing. My peanut allergic son and I visit Panera fairly frequently. And once recently he did have a mild reaction, we thought it was to the potato chips (which are now made sunflower oil which he is also allergic to), now I wonder. Both of the Paneras here are ones we have visited.

    • The specific Paneras in this article are where you’ve eaten? And your kid has reacted after his meal there? That’s scary…

  2. This is why I always double-check my food when I eat out both verbally and by eyeballing the dish. If something doesn’t seem right, I don’t eat it. Not always foolproof–I have had some cross contamination issues and once when I sent my food back, the folks in the kitchen simply picked out the offending food and sent the plate back out. I try to visit restaurants at their slower hours and am always polite to staff and tip well, so places where I regularly dine usually remember me and my dairy allergy. Places that routinely screw up my order or that are super busy are no longer on my list of “probably safe” restaurants.

  3. Not to say that they families affected by this do not have a case, but ever since I found out that my life depends on me not eating something that is part of our culture’s normal food supply, I have learned that you simply cannot trust that your restaurant food order will be prepared the way you ask. That this poor girl bit into a sandwich made by a stranger before her father checked it indicates to me that she needs to be better educated about living with her condition.

  4. If your kid has a “severe” allergy, why would you even risk eating at a restaurant? Especially when they state hey cannot guarantee that there is not cross contamination.
    The parents are irresponsible. Make her a sandwich at home you fools.

    • Often times that statement is not published visibly and the put a simple “Please inform your server of any allergies.” This leads people to believe a staff is trained. I challenge you to visit Panera and show me where this statement is visible in the restaurant.

    • This is not an issue of cross contamination. This is a case of 1.) a known allergen, 2.) that is not even an ingredient in the item which was ordered, 3.) being put in the customer’s order, 4.) after they TWICE stated that it should not contain peanut ingredients since the item was for an individual with an allergy. If the actual ingredients, characters, and circumsyances are changed to something else, it just sounds ludicrous. That would be like being allergic to…let’s say mayonnaise. Let’s say I am not a 6-year old child, but an individual adult with no one to check my food for me. Maybe someone really important, like the President. I order not online, but in person – a chocolate chip muffin at a Panera restaurant. Instead of peanut butter, let’s say the President is allergic to Mayonnaise. (A condiment that I presume Panera might use for another menu item, but not typically with what was ordered. In the same vein as peanut butter is to a grilled cheese sandwich.) So I say – TWICE – that I am allergic to mayo. Unbeknownst to me, for whatever reason – a language barrier, being rushed and not careful – whatever – a Dollop of mayonnaise is injected into the center of my muffin. I get in my car, and I take a bite of the muffin, finding mayonnaise inside. I call my doctor, who says to take Benadryl, I begin to vomit, administer my Epi-pen, call the ambulance, break out in hives, and spend the night in the hospital. And online people blame me because I shouldn’t have expected that I could have safely eaten food from a restaurant since they state there are potential issues with cross contamination, shouldn’t have taken a bite out of the muffin without first having someone check it for me – because there is always a chance that there could be a dollop of mayonnaise placed inside a chocolate chip muffin by accident, of course – it happens all the time, right? When you remove the blame from the child, from the parent, from the peanut butter, and from the grilled cheese sandwich – there is no one else responsible for this incident BUT the restaurant. We are all responsible for doing everything we can to take care of each other in this world, a world in which – unfortunately – my child has to fear everything from violence in her school, and now peanut butter placed in a food item that has no business being near it in the first place. As well as people who would blame her for having the audacity to patronize a restaurant, and do everything she is supposed to do, including stating to the server that she has a peanut allergy. If the SEVENTEEN MILLION individuals with food allergies never ate food at, or prepared within, a restaurant – I wonder what would happen to all the food service establishments.

      • I love this. Thank you! It is always OUR fault if we get sick. I rarely eat out because I have severe egg and fish allergy. I have had Applebees add chipotle mayo to a cheese quesadilla even though I handed them an allergy card and even though that was not listed on the menu as an ingredient. When I am out of town I am terrified of eating out, to the point it is hard to date (everyone goes out to eat right?). I rarely enjoy a meal even if it is fine because I am afraid there was something I missed while eating and I am waiting for a reaction. Not a pleasant way to live. But according to some I should sit home, never travel, and never expect to eat anywhere besides home.

    • If your child could be hit and killed by a car, why would you ever let them cross the street? Especially if you can’t guarantee that no one will run a red light through a crosswalk! Keep them at home!

      Same logic.

      No, what you do is you take precautions, teach them how to cross the street safely, walk with them until they’ve learned enough to do so by themselves, and actually live their life as part of society and not a frightened recluse hiding in the basement whenever a car goes by.

  5. Can we please stop calling it a “dollop” – defined as “a shapeless mass or blob of something, especially soft food.” Whether it was a Smear, a Drop, or a Thinly Spread Layer – there was Peanut Butter in the Sandwich. Whether it was intentional or an accident – the sandwich contained the allergen. Yes, it is more challenging nowadays for restaurants to accommodate special diets. Yes, it requires more training, separate equipment, more expensive salaries, all at a higher cost. Yes, it is more work. But, TOO BAD. It is not unreasonable to expect that any special food order, placed in person, by phone, or online – be provided within the conditions as requested. In any line of work, in any industry – you have to adapt with the times to continue to meet the ever-changing needs of all individuals in our society. Medicine, Education, Construction, and yes – food service. We all have to eat. Expecting individuals with food allergies to prepare each any every meal for their entire lives at home is not only unrealistic, it is discriminatory. We all still use the same food suppliers and grocery stores. Next, we will be asking people to grow their own food. Imagine how complicated it gets for parents. Restaurants MUST BE be held responsible. I promote JAKE’s WAYBACK BURGERS – the owner has a family member with a nut allergy. The first time we went there are were told that nothing on the menu contains nuts, I nearly cried with relief and appreciation.

    • Excellent post Jen! I have always felt it is discriminatory as well. Until we have a “celebrity” who also has the allergy to advocate our voices will not be heard. This is so sad!

  6. sorry, but as a parent of a small child, it’s YOUR obligation to check if the food ordered is suitable.
    not to mention that, if the allergy is this severe, Panera cannot guarantee there will be NO TRACE of the allergen since all utensils and machines are shared.

    i am pretty sure no one at Panera would poison a child on purpose. not to mention anyone with this severe allergy should be carrying an Epi Pen.

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