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Birthday Party Hazards: Fatal Foods

Birthday parties, like other celebrations, usually feature special foods like cake and ice cream. Children’s parties often include a meal as well as treats. Unfortunately, where food is present, allergies and choking hazards are also a real risk.

Homeowners may be liable for injuries or deaths resulting from the foods they serve at children’s parties and also adult gatherings. Liability may occur even where the homeowner/host was unaware of allergies or other possible dangers. The legal test involves foreseeability and the breach of a legally-recognized duty … and allergies and choking are foreseeable results of serving certain foods to children–or to adults.

Here are some steps homeowners can take to help avoid food-related liability at household gatherings and parties:

1. ASK GUESTS, OR THEIR PARENTS, ABOUT ALLERGIES IN ADVANCE.

Many children (and adults) have allergies — but not all allergies are familiar to party hosts. Peanut butter and fish are well-known allergens, but gluten intolerance and other specialized allergies are also on the rise. Adding a line to the invitation requesting notice of allergies, or asking at the time of RSVPs, can help ensure the party menu won’t create a serious hazard to guests. This is particularly important in the case of children’s parties, where the guests might not be aware of allergies or of the common ingredients in party foods. A child with gluten allergies might not know to avoid breaded chicken strips–but hosts aware of the issue can provide a safe alternative.

2. CONSIDER ELIMINATING KNOWN ALLERGENS FROM THE PARTY MENU. 

While it isn’t necessary to eliminate the birthday cake if one of your child’s guests is allergic to gluten, reasonable menu alterations may help keep guests safe, especially where alternatives are available. The more severe the allergies in question, the more important it may be to provide alternatives, or to ensure that guests are aware of which foods to avoid.

 3. BEWARE OF CROSS-CONTAMINATION.

People with serious allergies often need to avoid all contact with the relevant allergen. Simply putting the peanut butter sandwiches on a separate plate may not eliminate the risks. Be aware of cross-contamination–the possibility that allergens may find their way into other foods, either by use of shared cooking spaces or by human contact–and take steps to ensure that allergens don’t accidentally mingle with or contaminate other foods.

4. AVOID CHOKING HAZARDS.

Grapes, small candies, and hot dog slices create significant choking hazards, especially where young children are involved. When planning a party menu, consider all of the guests–as well as younger brothers or sisters who may be in attendance–and plan a menu that minimizes foods which create a choking risk.

5.  WARN GUESTS (OR PARENTS) OF ALLERGENS ON ARRIVAL.

Make sure your party guests (or, in the case of children, their parents) know about the possible allergen content of foods on the party menu, especially when the ingredients aren’t obvious at first glance. While it isn’t necessary to post a “hazard warning” on birthday cakes, if you know a guest has allergies, it’s polite–and legally mandatory–to warn the guest in advance.

6. ENSURE PROPER SUPERVISION AND HANDLING OF FOODS.

Adult parties require less “supervision” than children’s gatherings, for obvious reasons, but party foods should always be handled properly and with food safety issues in mind. Perishable items should remain refrigerated as long as possible, and not allowed to sit out in the sun or exposed to the air for a length of time which creates an unacceptable risk of spoilage. Foods like mayonnaise should be used only when the risks of bacterial contamination can be controlled.

AVOIDING FOOD-RELATED RISKS CREATES A SAFER ENVIRONMENT FOR CHILDREN, ADULTS, AND PARTY HOSTS.

Proper planning can keep food-related risks to a minimum. Choose menus which avoid high risks of bacterial or other contamination, spoiling, and known allergens that may injure guests. Make sure guests know about allergens that could impact  children, and supervise children with allergies to ensure improper foods are not ingested.

It doesn’t take much extra time to ensure your menu is safe for the guests and attendees at your party–and the result is a happier, safer, and healthier party for everyone.

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