Milk protein allergy: What to know as woman sues Tim Hortons for allegedly giving wrong drink

A woman says Tim Hortons allegedly added cream to her tea instead of almond milk.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Female refusing to drink milk showing stop gesture on bright background, health. Here's what to know about milk allergies. (Getty)
Here's what to know about milk allergies. (Getty) (Motortion via Getty Images)

Safety is top-of-mind for those in the food industry after a Canadian woman filed a lawsuit against Tim Hortons for allegedly causing her "a severe allergic reaction."

CTV News reported earlier this week a woman from Winnipeg that 25-year-old Gabrielle Lien Ho alleged Tim Hortons "failed to properly train employees on how to handle drink requests that require modifications or substitutions."

Ho claimed after ordering a tea through the Tim Hortons app, staff allegedly added cream to her drink instead of almond milk.

According to CTV News, the lawsuit said: "After taking just one sip of her tea, the plaintiff, who has a diagnosed milk protein allergy, immediately began suffering from an allergic reaction."

Ho used an EpiPen before being taken to a hospital. En route, her health "deteriorated" and she "was in and out of consciousness and unable to enter the hospital on her own," CTV News reported.

"Various employees of Concordia Hospital performed CPR for approximately eight minutes until the plaintiff's heart spontaneously restarted," the document stated.

But what exactly is milk protein allergy? Yahoo Canada spoke with Jennifer Gerdts, executive director of Food Allergy Canada, to find out.

What is a milk protein allergy?

More than three million Canadians have a food allergy. (Getty)
More than three million Canadians have a food allergy. (Getty) (Pixel_Pig via Getty Images)

A milk protein allergy is a food allergy that occurs when "the body's immune system sees a certain food as harmful and reacts by triggering an allergic reaction," Gerdts explained. She added it's generally the protein in the food that a person is allergic to.

Depending on the individual, this allergy can lead to anaphylaxis, "a severe allergic reaction that is potentially life-threatening," she said.

Symptoms of a food allergy, in this case milk, generally occur within two hours of ingestion.

"There is no known cause of food allergy," Gerdts said.

How common is milk allergy in Canada?

Food allergies impact more than three million Canadians, and according to a 2020 study, close to 400,000 Canadians are allergic to milk.

"Severe cases have been reported, including incidence of fatality," Gerdts said of milk allergies, but added there is currently "no research on how common severe reactions to milk occur in Canada."

What symptoms can milk allergy cause?

Gerdts said symptoms of a food allergy can range from mild to severe, and can impact the following body symptoms:

  • skin (hives, swelling, redness, itching)

  • breathing (coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath)

  • stomach (nausea, pain/cramps, vomiting, diarrhea)

  • heart (paler than normal skin colour/blue colour, dizziness)

"The most severe form of an allergic reaction is anaphylaxis," she claimed, adding that generally includes two or more body systems.

"However, breathing or heart symptoms alone can be anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis needs to be treated promptly with epinephrine."

What's it like living with a milk allergy?

One person with an adrenalin injection pen in her hand on a wooden table. Anaphylaxis needs to be treated promptly with epinephrine. (Getty)
Anaphylaxis needs to be treated promptly with epinephrine. (Getty) (Ana Maria Serrano via Getty Images)

Gerdts explained food allergies impact a person's quality of life. "It takes shared responsibility to stay safe and avoid reactions," she claimed.

A study on the impact of food allergy on children found that milk allergies were reported as carrying the most burden.

Gerdts referenced it was the "most socially limiting, requiring the most planning, causing the most anxiety, most challenging to find 'safe' or allergy-friendly foods, and costly."

Though the study focused on children, "adults may also feel these impacts," she noted.

The expert pointed to the challenges those with a food allergy experience in food service, whether it's eating out or ordering online.

"Having access to accurate ingredient information, knowledgeable staff and an effective communication process for both in-person and online options is needed to ensure consumers with food allergy can access safe food choices."

Is there treatment for milk allergy?

Treatments for food allergies are evolving, such as immunotherapy, but there is no cure.

"These treatments have limited access and are not available across all age groups yet," Gerdst explained.

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