Marilyn Allen is one of the early pioneers of the food allergy education movement. In 1990, after the death of her daughter Robyn following a food allergy reaction, Marilyn co-founded the Allergy Asthma Information Association’s “Anaphylaxis Project of Ontario” as part of a core group of dedicated volunteers. It later became The Anaphylaxis Network and the Anaphylaxis Foundation of Canada — the first of its kind in Canada. These groups joined together to form Anaphylaxis Canada and their efforts started an awareness and advocacy movement, laying the groundwork for the passage of Sabrina’s Law and changes in the education and food service systems, as well as in public perceptions of food allergy and asthma.
We recently spoke with her about the early days of advocacy and current food allergy training projects at colleges, universities and in the broader food service industry. (To see Marilyn’s full bio, please jump to the end of this blog.
Q. What was it like in the beginning?
Marilyn: In the beginning there was a lack of consistency in diagnosis, and many individuals and families felt isolated without the support they needed. There was very poor education on allergy and immunology at the primary care level: a common belief was that children must wait until age 3 before undergoing testing for allergies. There was no general criteria for diagnosing food allergy amongst allergists and at the school level children were often given poor – or no – support. Societally, there was a tendency not to understand the seriousness of anaphylaxis, and to look at food allergies skeptically, as an over-reaction from anxious parenting.
Q. Wow. Taking that all in… For someone like me who wasn’t there, how did the change happen? Who got the ball rolling to raises awareness and improve the situation?
Marilyn: The original advocacy was a passion taken on by small group put together following Robyn’s death and personally funded by us. We worked from our homes. We created petitions calling for government support and recognition for the need of awareness of the seriousness of anaphylaxis. We addressed the school districts, foodservice, food manufacturing sectors and helped families to make connections and get support. It started very small as a cultivation of the ideas and a wish list of areas that needed change, which led to planting many seeds of awareness over many areas. It became a well-run and productive grass roots organization of volunteers that was self-funded until the amalgamation of the Anaphylaxis Network and the Anaphylaxis Foundation of Canada. The first paid staff were Tammy White and Laurie Harada, who remain with Food Allergy Canada today.
The journey is far from over, but looking back I am elated to see the changes that have be made and am proud of what this group of dedicated folks has achieved in a relatively short time. I know my daughter would be very proud of all the lessons that have been learned and all the changes that have been made.
Q. Yes, let’s talk about the work ahead. You’re currently involved with Food Allergy Canada’s food service education programs. What is this program like?
Our Allergen Training Basics for the Foodservice and Food Retail Industry addresses the ongoing concern of the industry to provide safe food for food allergic customers. Participants receive a “Certificate of Completion” when they pass the course. Right now, there is no consistency among all of the provinces requiring foodservice staff to take food safety courses. Those who complete the recommended food safety certification courses only get a small amount of information on the management of food allergens. So this was a gap that needed to be addressed.
Through education, this course offers three key strategies: Learn, Prevent and Respond, plus best practice tips for the management of food allergies in their facilities. It is targeted towards front line employees working independently or as a group to complete a successful passing grade. Ultimately, operations will be better prepared to develop procedures to better recognize and manage the risks of food allergens and how to communicate to allergic consumers. We have seen a rise in implementing procedures and general awareness amongst staff as a result of taking this course. Programs have also encouraged the development of improved procedures that will protect allergic consumers. Discussions have also arisen from these sessions about implementing stock epinephrine in foodservice facilities.
Q. Food Allergy Canada also consults with universities and colleges about their food services. What initiatives are going right now?
We are currently in the planning stage to collaborate with university and college administration, allergists, student organizations, food catering organizations and other stakeholders to develop guidelines for university and colleges. These would incorporate allergen management training and best practices as part of the whole program. We will also offer consultation on the development of policies and procedures. As a follow up step, foodservice staff will be encouraged to complete the Allergen Training Basics course.
Q. Back to stock epinephrine: what about the Hamilton project? How has it been going?
The Hamilton pilot stock epinephrine program has been extended for a further year. Currently we have provided training for 25 security guards and equipped them to carry auto-injectors and two foodservice outlets in the Jackson Square Mall. Training included understanding life-threatening allergies, recognizing the symptoms, reducing the risks in foodservice and how to respond in the event of an emergency including emergency response protocols. A train-the-trainer program has been provided to each group who participated to sustain the training and support the program. The research results have not been concluded but on-going assessment of the program has been examined at regular intervals by the McMaster led research team.
Thank you, Marilyn. It’s an honour to hear your story.
Marilyn: Thank you.
Tags: advocacy, food service, history, Marilyn Allen
About Marilyn Allen. Marilyn is a facilitator/trainer and consultant for Food Allergy Canada, the Guelph Food Technology Centre and Health Canada, Bureau of Chemical Safety, Food Directorate. Having lost a daughter to anaphylaxis in 1990, Ms. Allen has worked to raise awareness of the dangers of anaphylaxis. She has extensive experience in presenting Train the Trainer and Awareness sessions and training to the food manufacturing and food service industries. She holds an accreditation from the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Representatives of Canada, the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s ServSafe Certification and has completed the HACCP Prerequisite Program for food manufacturers. She has served as a founding member, board member and V.P. of the previous anaphylaxis organizations and their forerunners who united in 2002 to form Anaphylaxis Canada, now Food Allergy Canada. It is her goal to see the risk of food anaphylaxis reduced through education, awareness and research.