Mother fights for food allergy law after son dies eating at Texas restaurant

HARLINGEN, Texas (KVEO/KGBT) After nearly a decade of lobbying for food allergy awareness, a grieving mother’s hard work has paid off with the enactment of a new law in Texas this year.

In 2014, Sergio Alexander Lopez died after ingesting peanut butter at a restaurant in McAllen, Texas. Before eating, Lopez checked with employees if he was safe.

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Lopez, 24, was on her lunch break with a friend when she ordered a veggie taco. He asked if the order had peanuts in it and was told no. Lopez received the order and asked again, and was told no a second time, his mother recalled.

(Courtesy: Belinda Vaca)

She took the to go order and started eating the food in front of the music academy she worked at when she felt a tingling sensation.

“So, he called [the restaurant,] it’s on his phone. He talked to them for a minute and a half, and they said again, ‘It’s just spices,’” Vaca said.

Lopez continued to eat the taco and drove to work. It was then that he was seen grabbing his throat, saying, “I was lied to. They lied to me.

A colleague rushed Lopez to the hospital, who was kicking while inside the car, struggling to breathe. On the way, they saw a private ambulance and stopped the car. Lopez got off, flailing his arms before passing out.

When Vaca arrived at the hospital to pick up her son, he was piped up in a coma.

(Courtesy: Belinda Vaca)

“I raised my son alone as a single mom… It was just me and him. He was my everything,” Vaca said.

Less than eight hours after eating the taco, Vaca was ordered to leave the room and medical personnel rushed inside. A little later they asked her if she wanted to say goodbye to her son.

Lopez died early the next morning. An autopsy revealed his cause of death was anaphylaxis from the peanuts, he said.

A mother’s fight for justice

That same day, Vaca returned to the restaurant with a colleague. She let her colleague do the talking, she said. Her colleague asked for the same taco and asked what her ingredients were, with the excuse that she really liked it.

(Courtesy: Belinda Vaca)

The owner came out and said one of the first ingredients was peanut butter, he said.

“She told him, ‘My friend just lost her son this morning because you said ‘no.’ She asked three times and you said, ‘no. that he has no peanuts,” she recalled.

Vaca said the owner responded by saying “Oh, well, he asked peanutsthis has peanut butter.”

“My son died because of someone’s ignorance,” Vaca said.

Before his death, Sergio planned to move to Austin. His mother also intended to move there, to be closer to him.

After his death, Vaca moved to Austin again.

«My office was two blocks from the Capitol,» he said. “I feel like God put it all there for me because that’s what I would do during my lunch hour and breaks. I would go to the Capitol and talk to people.

Vaca recalled how he would go down the halls and knock on each representative’s door. He started with senators and representatives from the Rio Grande Valley, but admits that at the time he didn’t even know what a bill was.

Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville was the first to tell her that she needed a bill. In 2015 he was the first to sponsor it. She was warned that since she was single, she could take up to 20 years.

“I wanted to keep trying, so I did,” Vaca said.

(Courtesy: Belinda Vaca)

Vaca said he paid for the flyers and bought 80 T-shirts in 2017 and distributed them around the Capitol. She said she felt too embarrassed to create a GoFundMe page and that she hasn’t received any money from the lawsuits.

After Sergio’s death, Vaca joined Facebook groups for mothers of children with food allergies. She said she knows several mothers and children in multiple states who have suffered similar tragedies.

Vaca said she received multiple calls from grateful mothers after the bill passed, including one crying because her 5-year-old had had several close calls.

The Sergio Lopez Food Allergy Awareness Act

The Sergio Lopez Food Allergy Awareness Act, or Senate Bill 812, will require restaurants to display a standardized poster with information about food allergies and responses to allergic reactions.

The law will also require that food training programs and the food certification manager exam include allergies as a subject.

(Courtesy: Belinda Vaca)

The bill was authored by Senator Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and approved by the Senate on April 6. After being filed without a governor’s signature, the Sergio Lopez Food Allergy Awareness Act will go into effect on September 1, 2023.

For Vaca, the fight for justice doesn’t end there. Holding back tears, Vaca said he’s heading to Washington DC to push for a federal law honoring his son.

“It could take a lifetime until death. It might not happen,” she said. “But, just like there is a Heimlich Maneuver poster in every restaurant, why can’t there be a food allergy awareness poster in every restaurant in the United States to save lives?”

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