Death by Dairy?

Michael Saffioti. From
Michael Saffioti. From

Yesterday the Everett Herald reported that no criminal charges will be filed in the death of Michael Saffioti. Saffioti died in the Snohomish County Jail July 3rd under questionable circumstances.

During a previous incarceration, the Herald reports, Saffioti became known as Bubble Boy among inmates because of the way his food needed to be prepared. He had a severe dairy allergy among other medical problems.

The first report I read about this, courtesy of a nonprofit that advocates for people with food allergies, not the local media, indicated that Saffioti’s dairy allergy was treated quite casually by the jail staff. My jaw dropped when I read how he tried to tell them what he could and couldn’t eat, so they gave him an alternative the autopsy said contributed to his death anyway.

The primary cause of death now seems to be asthma, but knowing the havoc that food allergens can wreak upon the human body, and how allergic he was said to be to dairy, it makes perfect sense that what he ate grievously harmed him. He carried medications with him to be prepared in the face of just such an emergency.

In our society there remains an astounding amount of prejudice and naiveté about people with food allergies. There are several major myths that persist and I’ve personally dealt with for years. Myth one is that a person can’t get that sick from food. In this myth, food allergy sufferers might get flu-like symptoms or diarrhea, but “it’s not that bad” and “it’ll pass.” In reality, the ingestion of an allergen can be immediately life-threatening for some people and make others violently ill for days.

Myth two is that you must ingest a large quantity of an allergen in order to get sick. This is the “a little bit isn’t going to hurt you” fallacy, and this might have been in play in Saffioti’s case. Those of us with celiac know that even trace amounts of gluten, the protein in wheat, barley, and rye, can make us sick. We don’t have to have a bite of a forbidden muffin or roll in a vat of flour; even cross-contamination, like our food being prepared on a shared cutting board, can make us sick.

Myth three is that food-allergic people are hypochondriacs who become melodramatic when exposed to an allergen. Food-allergic people have to be very strict about avoiding substances that make their immune system go into overdrive. As a celiac with multiple food allergies it can take days for me to be well enough to return to work after certain exposures. Some of us have reactions by even touching an allergen.

Myth four is that allergens “can’t be that bad” unless they’re ingested in a “pure” form. Gluten, dairy, and egg ingredients masquerade in scores of forms– most prepared foods are full of them. The names they are given are deceptive and this is why it’s important for food-allergic people to be allowed to read labels themselves before deciding to eat something. “Hydrolyzed whey protein” and “modified food starch” can be just as harmful to some people as a glass of milk and a piece of whole wheat toast.

Myth five is that food allergies are a stand-alone issue. In many people, they coexist with other autoimmune diseases. Exposure to a food allergen can have a domino effect and cause symptoms of other autoimmune diseases to worsen. People with celiac and food allergies don’t usually receive a proper diagnosis for years, so their digestive and immune systems can become damaged in the meantime. Immune system issues tend to cluster in such people, with asthma, diabetes, thyroid issues, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, adrenal problems, lupus, and other disorders joining in the mayhem.

Saffioti’s mother has retained Seattle attorney Anne Bremner to represent her in this matter. Not only is what her son fed for breakfast an issue, but according to other inmates, the guards did not respond appropriately to his medical emergency and might have even mocked him as he died. Even though those responsible for Saffioti’s care during what was supposed to be one day in jail won’t be criminally charged, this is not the end of this matter, especially not with Bremner involved.

Hopefully this situation will open eyes as to how serious food allergies are and that awareness will flood into institutions like jails, schools, and mental hospitals. As I often say when blogging on this subject, it is our diets, our gluttonous intake of foods we probably shouldn’t be eating, that affects our nation’s physical and mental health so seriously.

I always ask– what kind of gas are you putting in your car? Are you leaded, unleaded, or diesel? How do you know if you haven’t been properly tested? And how many of the problems you suffer from could be eliminated without medication or surgery if you knew exactly what you should and shouldn’t eat?

Michael Saffioti knew. His cries for help appear to have gone unheeded. At 22 years old, after missing a court date for a misdemeanor pot charge– he died during what was supposed to be one night in jail.

Let’s continue to speak out about the seriousness of food allergies and make sure this doesn’t happen again.


Saffioti’s death was captured on video:

The Huffington Post included Saffioti’s death in an article entitled, “The Most Outrageous Stories of Police Misconduct in 2013”:


What is food to one man may be fierce poison to others. –Lucretius


Update 1/20/13:

Update 10/13/13: Rose Saffioti has filed a $10 million lawsuit against Snohomish County. Note that it’s Allergic Living covering this story, not the mainstream media.


©2013 H. Hiatt/ All articles/posts on this blog are copyrighted original material that may not be reproduced in part or whole in any electronic or printed medium without prior permission from H. Hiatt/


3 thoughts on “Death by Dairy?

  1. ugh!
    horrible, senseless, and utterly avoidable. Don’t even get me started on the court system….it’s designed to NEVER let you out. Even the lamest of “crimes” haunts a person forever, and God help you if you’re unjustly accused. From firsthand experience let me tell you that involvement with law enforcement is detrimental to your life, and in this poor kid’s case killed him outright. Makes my blood boil!!!!!!


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