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Justice sought after allergy trauma

Reaction to nuts hospitalizes girl; firm admits blame, offers family ¥50,000, drinks in 'insult'

by Stephen Carr

One day in May, 7-year-old Kaiya Lucente was cleaning her classroom after lunch when she began coughing, her face puffed up and she found it difficult to breathe. Her eyes turned red, and scarlet blotches started to appear on her face. She had had these frightening symptoms before after accidentally ingesting peanuts and knew that her severe allergic reaction then meant she must never touch them again.

But this time she had not eaten any peanuts, only a small packet of almonds, part of the lunch supplied by her school, Seika Elementary in Tajimi, Gifu Prefecture. What was going on?

The school nurse was called as Kaiya’s neck swelled up, constricting her windpipe. Her eyes became small slots and she couldn’t see to walk properly.

“She looked as if she had gone a couple of rounds with Mike Tyson,” her Canadian father, Kenneth Lucente, recalls. Her nose ran so much that a whole box of tissues was used up.

Kaiya’s Japanese grandparents were called to pick her up from the school and the girl, in considerable distress, was taken to a doctor. On her arrival, the doctor immediately diagnosed the classic symptoms of a severe peanut allergy. But as she had not eaten any peanuts, he rang the company that had supplied the almond packet to the school, Inaba Peanuts Co., Ltd., a big firm based in Gifu City that had contracts to supply a range of nuts to schools and shops in Gifu, Aichi and Mie prefectures.

Afterwards, the company contacted Kaiya’s father and mother, Aya, to say they wanted to apologize face to face. The next day, three Inaba executives sat down with the parents, the salesman who arranged school lunch contracts for the company, the Seika school lunch organizer, and the head of the Tajimi School Lunch Center.

At the meeting the Inaba company men offered a written apology for the incident. The letters they proffered stated that peanuts at their factory had been deep fried in oil. Then the same oil had been used to cook the almonds Kaiya had eaten. The company admitted they should have changed the oil before frying the almonds. The machine that had wrapped the almonds, one of 15 at the plant, had been used to wrap several different types of nuts the previous day.

Kenneth Lucente’s next move was to contact a lawyer. The lawyer advised him that the failure to change the oil for frying different types of nuts was a violation of the Food Sanitation Act.

“The packets they put the nuts in must also say ‘This product may contain traces of peanuts’ if that is a fact,” adds Lucente.

Inaba has this information on packets of nuts sold to the public but not those supplied to schools. A month after the incident, the company made stickers carrying the information to put on nut packets and pledged to print the words directly onto packets in the future.

Before Kaiya’s allergic reaction, the company had submitted documents to Tajimi City Hall stating that their food products were allergy-free. After the incident Inaba lost their contract to supply schools in the Tajimi area. The documentation was then modified by the company, which hoped to win back its contract, to say allergens may be present in trace amounts.

The lawyer also told the Lucentes that under Japanese law, a company that admits wrongdoing is liable only up until the time of the admission. It can be held responsible for medical bills or other damages until then, but not afterwards.

Kaiya was photographed some hours after the onset of the physical symptoms of the reaction, by which time they had lessened somewhat. They subsided after a couple of days. But she was mentally shaken, and her parents thought she needed more than just physical treatment. Back in Canada she was taken to see a psychologist “to get the nut thing out of her head,” says her father.

“We had started getting her not to be afraid of nuts. She had begun to accept that peanuts were not the same as walnuts, macadamia nuts and others. She had just started to accept the idea that almonds were fine and had begun eating them when she ate that tainted packet,” explains Lucente.

“She’s afraid to see nuts now. She cringes and looks away when they are shown on television. Also, she won’t eat food with sesame oil on it because it tastes nutty, although it has nothing to do with peanuts.

“Her life has changed. It’s as if she has a big disability or handicap now. The school is scared to give Kaiya food with any kind of nut in it and don’t trust what the nuts are cooked in now. We get letters now about anything in the diet that could remotely cause a problem. The teachers are terrified of being held liable for a future incident and they send us about 30 printed sheets a month to cover themselves,” he adds.

“We are second-guessing ourselves now. The other week we were asked if chestnuts prepared in the same building as peanuts were acceptable. We said no. But in the same situation involving sweet potatoes, because the Inaba company were not involved, we said yes. It feels like the flip of a coin now.”

“She already stands out as a foreigner. Now she feels even more singled out, feeling some of the other children may have the attitude: ‘Now we can’t eat peanuts, thanks to you.’ “

Kaiya’s father attempted to calculate what he considered appropriate compensation from Inaba for the trouble caused by the family’s changed circumstances. Including medical bills, he came up with a figure of around ¥3 million. However, the lawyer advising him thought the most the company might be prepared to pay would be closer to ¥300,000. Taking Inaba to court would be counterproductive, the advice was, because any possible settlement would be dwarfed by legal fees.

The Lucentes had some more meetings with the company and put it to them that they would accept a settlement of ¥500,000. In the event, the most Inaba was prepared to offer was a gift box of soft drinks and ¥50,000.

“I laughed at the insult of the amount,” says Lucente. He refused it, gave back the box of drinks and told the company he would get even with them some other way. The firm’s efforts to placate the family also included a gift to Kaiya’s grandparents.

The Lucentes are now not looking for any personal gain from Inaba, but they have asked the police to press charges against the company under the Food Sanitation Act.

The Inaba Peanuts Co. said it was unable to comment on the issues raised in this article as the case is now a police matter.

Although the Lucentes have known about their daughter’s allergy since she was an infant and taken precautions against it, it is only after the incident with the Inaba almonds that they feel they have lost some of their peace of mind.

When Kaiya was 3 years old, her great grandmother inadvertently gave her some chocolate containing peanuts. When her eyes started to go red she was taken to a hospital, hooked up to an intravenous drip and kept in for a day.

Since then vigilance has been necessary. At nursery school, her eyes would start to redden if she was in the same room as someone eating peanuts. The school’s solution was to separate her from the other children at lunchtime. She ate her meals in the teachers’ room.

However, at the start of 2005 the Tajimi School Lunch Center decided to stop using peanuts altogether. For the next few years the Lucentes were relaxed about their daughter’s school diet.

“Inaba are still operating normally outside Tajimi and supplying nuts in other parts of Gifu and in Aichi and Mie,” says Lucente. “They made our daughter ill, gave her psychological problems, lied to the local authority and disrupted our lives. All this was so they could scam the system and save themselves some money. Are they going to inflict this on someone else?”

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