A remote island resort accessible only by boat and helicopter was fined $50,000 AUD ($33,000 USD) for the chef’s “gross negligence” in causing a 15-year-old girl’s severe reaction.
The Aldesta Hotel Group which operates the Heron Island Resort in Queensland, Australia pleaded guilty in Brisbane Magistrates Court last week for falsely describing a food as safe when they should have known that a consumer who relied on the description would likely suffer physical harm.
The girl and her mom were visitors at the resort on the Great Barrier Reef when the girl, who has a severe allergy to tree nuts, requested a nut-free dessert. The chef served a pre-packaged gluten-free raspberry cake despite warnings on the packaging that it contained almonds and possibly traces of other tree nuts.
Jessica Bland, the solicitor representing Queensland Health, said the girl developed swelling of the tongue, lips, and face; hives; and a tightened throat after tasting the dessert (classic symptoms of anaphylaxis.)
Anaphylaxis is a severe reaction to a food, drug, insect venom, or environmental substance that can be fatal if not treated in a timely fashion. Epinephrine is the only treatment that can halt and reverse the progression of anaphylaxis.
The girl’s mom administered her epinephrine auto-injector and an antihistamine before taking her to the resort’s medical center.
The nurse telephoned a doctor, who prescribed an oral steroid because of the girl’s symptoms which appeared to be the onset of a major allergic reaction with a high possibility of progressing to anaphylactic shock.
The epinephrine eased the girl’s symptoms but her facial swelling persisted for hours afterward.
Bland said the incident was extremely serious as Heron Island is a remote location only accessible by boat and helicopter, and the guests had no other choice but to eat at the resort.
The maximum fine that can be levied against a corporation for falsely describing food is $689,000. Bland called for a fine ranging from $50,000 to $60,000.
An attorney representing the hotel group citing the guilty plea, lack of prior convictions, written apology, and steps taken to further train staff on the handling of food allergies, asked for a fine ranging from $40,000 to $50,000.
Magistrate Andrew Moloney said the chef was “grossly negligent” after inferring that the chef did not read the cake’s label or understand the dessert order. The magistrate said the girl’s allergic reaction was “quite frightening” and the result of “blatant human error” at a resort employing ad hoc food safety training.
Aldesta was fined $50,000 and ordered to pay $1,600 in costs. The incident was not recorded as a conviction.