TORONTO - Fast food chains like McDonald's aren't wrong to ban employees from wearing poppies because the iconic flower could become a safety hazard, the association that represents Canadian restaurants said Thursday.
"There's a danger it could fall into the food and become a choking hazard," said Garth Whyte, president and CEO of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association.
His organization has guidelines — which most national chains follow — stating that all jewelry should be removed before working with food, Whyte said. McDonald's and other chains applied that interpretation to poppies when they asked that employees working with food avoid wearing them.
"I don't want to get in whether a poppy is jewelry, but generally speaking, it's hard to keep clean, bacteria can harbour between the skin and the piece of the jewelry," Whyte said.
"Poppies are notorious for falling off."
His comments come after employees at a McDonald's in Lethbridge, Alta., were told that wearing poppies for Remembrance Day was banned even though there is no specific legislation in that province suggesting pins can't be used while working in restaurants.
McDonald's Canada says that employees who work behind the counter are not allowed to wear traditional poppies because of the safety hazard straight pins pose.
There has been a similar complaint about a grocery store in Ontario, although that province also lacks legislation stating food handlers can't wear any kind of pin.
According to reports, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Toronto had told staff not to wear poppies because the pinned symbol didn't conform to its dress code, but later reversed that decision.
Robyn Zettler of the Ontario branch of the Royal Canadian Legion said her organization didn't feel slighted over the McDonald's decision, but noted that if food chains are worried about safety, they can simply ask their local branch for the sticker version of the poppy.
"We understand fully about the food safety issue, of course we respect that, and that's primarily the reason that the sticker was produced," she said.
"Tim Hortons (employees) wear the sticker."
Whyte said both he and his members are big supporters of the poppy and what it represents, but noted there are many chances for employees to don the symbol when they are not handling food.
The rule is a preventative measure that is in no way meant to slight veterans, he added, and that's something he believes most Canadians understand.
Comments about the original story online and on Twitter ranged from anger over the ban to empathy from readers who said they have lost numerous poppies because the pins used to attach them to clothing don't do the job.
"I worked in the F&B industry for 30 years this is a first!!!!!!!! SHAME ON YOU," said one reader comment.
"Not cool. Our veterans need our utmost respect," said another.
Others sided with the restaurants.
"Employees who are behind the counter are not looking at the big picture that includes a potential P.R. catastrophe," said one reader.
It's been a rough couple weeks for the poppy campaign with vandals also stealing donation boxes from veterans' groups, restaurants and stores.
But Zettler said she didn't take any of the latest events as a sign that support for veterans is wavering.
"If anything, because of our involvement recently with Afghanistan, that has brought more awareness to the Canadian general public and it has certainly increased the amount of people that are attending the Remembrance Day services across the country," she said.
There has also been a poppy controversy in Britain where FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, refused to allow England players to wear a poppy emblem on their shirts against Spain on Saturday. The organization argued it would "open the door to similar initiatives from all over the world, jeopardizing the neutrality of football.''
FIFA eventually compromised, saying England's black armbands can carry a poppy symbol.
— With files from The Associated Press
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