Hospitals must report allergic reactions after food labelling error kills child

Melbourne boy Ronak Warty died after a reaction to dairy in a coconut drink.
Melbourne boy Ronak Warty died after a reaction to dairy in a coconut drink.  Photo: supplied

A devastating food labelling error that led to the death of a 10-year-old Melbourne boy has prompted the Victorian government to make it mandatory for hospitals to report cases of anaphylaxis.

Keen soccer player Ronak Warty died a few days before Christmas in 2013 after consuming a coconut drink bought from an Asian supermarket in Burwood East. It was later discovered the beverage contained undeclared dairy milk. 

But because the hospital that treated Ronak did not alert the health department, the dangerous product remained on the shelves for another six weeks before being recalled.

Food allergies are on the rise.
Food allergies are on the rise. Photo: Eddie Jim

More than 320 people have died in Australia from anaphylaxis since 1997 and while medication and insect bites have typically posed the biggest danger, the number of people reacting to food such as nuts, dairy, eggs and seafood has been on the rise since the early '90s.

Today almost half of the anaphylaxis presentations at Victorian emergency departments are food-related, a figure that has rapidly increased by around 14 per cent each year.

In response to the trend and recommendations from the coroner, the Andrews government on Wednesday introduced a bill requiring all hospitals to report all suspected cases of anaphylaxis to the Department of Health and Human Services.

"This will mean appropriate action can be taken, such as the recall of products that are not labelled correctly and could put people with allergies at risk," a spokeswoman for Health Minister Jill Hennessy said.

Authorities were only made aware of the problem with the imported coconut drink in 2014 when contacted by support group Allergy & Anaphylaxis Australia.

The group's chief executive, Maria Said, said anaphylaxis deaths often went unreported. She said she was aware of two fatalities in the past two months in NSW, including one that occurred after someone dined out.

Advertisement

"Sometimes it gets totally missed – whether it's a packaged food or a food that gets served in a food service facility after the person has disclosed their allergy. Those cases need to be investigated as well," Ms Said said.

Ronak's parents told the coroner that they had been vigilant in monitoring his allergy to nuts and dairy, with his father Satyajit Warty, who has since died, even attending school camps so he could watch what his son ate.

Mr Warty said when he bought the can of Green Time Natural Coconut Drink he had checked the label to ensure it did not contain any of his son's allergens.

Green Time Natural Coconut Drink contained undeclared dairy milk.
Green Time Natural Coconut Drink contained undeclared dairy milk. 

Ronak also checked the can.

In a letter in 2014, Mr Warty said "in effect, my son was killed by a corporate entity by not declaring the product correctly".

Slater and Gordon Lawyers' Barrie Woollacott​ has represented a number of families who have lost children to anaphylaxis and said those who were involved in preparing and providing the food were not always vigilant about allergens.

"People with food allergies, they need to feel safe about the food they are eating," he said.

"It's important that other people get it right so they can rely on the food labelling."

The proposed new anaphylaxis reporting laws are set to be in place by November next year.