Quebec’s food allergy policies questioned

MONTREAL — Quebec should consider a province-wide framework on how schools manage food allergies rather than leaving it up to individual school boards, allergy experts said Wednesday.

The government was forced to defend its lack of provincial protocol this week after a Montreal school board announced it wouldn’t tell parents what to pack in their kids’ lunches.

In a memo to parents, the Commission scolaire de Montreal said school staff will not confiscate any food brought to school as it is up to parents to decide what their children eat.

The memo said students will be required to wash their hands before and after meals and are prohibited from sharing food.

“School staff are present during lunch hour and know the children who have allergies,” the memo stated. “They have at their disposal many strategies to intervene in order to protect children with severe allergies while respecting everyone’s lunches.”

The memo made headlines across the province and highlighted how Quebec is one of the only provinces without legislation or clear policy on how schools manage students’ food allergies.

David Fischer, president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, said school food policy is a “thorny and controversial topic.”

But he added a province-wide approach is useful.

“Anything that is mandatory and regimented can help,” Fischer said.

There is a consensus among academics and other experts on how schools can reduce and treat serious allergic reactions, called anaphylaxis, but it doesn’t include “banning” foods, he explained.

Fischer said there is no data indicating food bans reduce risks of anaphylaxis and there is even a “slight trend” of increases of reactions in places where food bans have been tried.

His organization’s guidelines include adult supervision when children are eating; no sharing food; washing hands with soap before and after eating; and properly cleaning surfaces such as tables.

Ontario introduced legislation in 2006 forcing schools in the province to have an allergy policy that includes individual safety plans for at-risk students, emergency procedures, and training for school staff.

The Ontario government said the law was the first of its kind in the world.

Fischer said Ontario’s law “isn’t necessarily as good as people think it is” because while it stipulates that every school should have a plan, the legislation doesn’t say what that plan should be.

Gwen Smith, editor of Allergic Living magazine, said the Montreal school board’s memo places too much emphasis on parents making lunches, “but pays only lip service to the very real needs of children with severe food allergies.”

“I suspect you’ll see backlash to this from parents of young allergic children,” she said. ”They will, quite rightly, be wanting more details of how their children are protected if they are to be in a milieu in which many other young children are eating a major allergen or allergens.”

Quebec Education Minister Sebastien Proulx said Tuesday he has “confidence” that individual school boards can properly manage their own policies regarding reducing the risks of allergic reactions in schools.

Health Minister Gaetan Barrette added there are an “infinite” number of foods that can cause allergic reactions.

“There is a public perception that when it comes to allergies, we’re talking about peanut butter or shellfish,” he said. “But there are people allergic to things like carrots. There are so many different kinds of allergies that if we drew up a list, we would end up banning all food.”

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