Navigating the Perils of Food Allergies
It’s not until you’ve had a food allergy or known someone who has that it even dawns on you to consider how many traps and pitfalls there are. My younger brother was the worst affected in our family. He has a potentially fatal allergy to fish and fish products. As an infant our parents fed him a little fish and he almost died. His throat swelled and his airway constricted, and it was just lucky that, with medical help, he survived. Well, that’s easy, you say, just rule fish out of the diet and it’s all fixed. Life resumes a margin of absolute safety and you carry on. Not so.
As kids we grew up on fish and chips from the chip shop every Friday, everyone except my brother, who could have the chips only until he began reacting to them as well. He wasn’t allergic to the chips, of course, it was just when they were fried in the same oil as the fish. My brother is a clone of Steve Irwin, very outgoing and adventurous. He loved going fishing with us, even though his legs would balloon and come out in red welts from standing barefoot in the small amount of water in the dinghy in which the fresh-caught fish were lying. So we used buckets.
Going to college at University was challenging too. College staff served up rissoles one night but neglected to mention they were fish rissoles. Luckily he survived. Now married and living in Sydney, he has a daughter, and she has a similarly severe allergy to peanuts. At least with his experience, he and his wife are much better equipped to recognise hurdles ahead.
Their daughter has also been well schooled in politely refusing any chocolate or food bar, given the high chance it will contain nuts or elements of nuts. I feel her pain to a degree, as I grew up with an allergy to chocolate, which, thankfully, I have outgrown.
My brother went to a dinner party with close friends a couple of years ago and felt unwell after starting to eat. He asked if the meal contained fish. No, they assured him, it did not. Prawns, yes (he can eat those) but not fish. But then the embarrassed hostess suddenly realised. Despite knowing of his allergy, and having avoided fish as a protein component, she had forgotten that an everyday additive in her culture, as common as tomato sauce in Aussie culture, was fish sauce. Bingo! Culprit identified.
When a diver or group of divers are underwater, a particular buoy or flag can be left above water to indicate their location and activity, so others can safely avoid them. We have lighthouses, which give visual warning of navigation dangers. So why don’t provide colour coded warnings warning of food allergy risks? Manufacturers are required, or find it advisable; to put written warnings on their products (Warning: this product may contain traces of nut?), but this assumes your target audience is old enough to read. Children can be old enough to open a wrapper without being old enough to read the warning that might save their life.
So, in addition to any written warning, what about a colour-coded warning bar that goes right around one end of smaller packages, such as food bars, or prominently and visibly across the top portion of larger packages (such as cereal boxes).
How about a red/black striped warning bar for tomato products; orange/black for citrus; brown/black for peanuts; silver/black for fish and so on. These would provide a much simpler visual warning and one which children could be more easily trained to identify and avoid. The same sort of warning stripe could also apply to menus, so diners had a quick and easy way to identify if a particular meal was suitable for them. Some meal choices might have multiple stripes.
Now there is a legalistic point at which common sense and legal accuracy part company. This is the point, for example, where some cereal makers’ label their products may contains traces of nuts not because the product is Nut-Centred Chewbix but because there is a 0.01% chance that when the production line switches from Nut-Centred to Fruit-Centred Chewbix that some of the first batches may inadvertently contain nut particles from the previous production work. I don’t think manufacturers should be crucified for inadvertently having a packaging error, unless it can be demonstrated that lax production methods display a cavalier attitude to such safety. While manufacturers may choose to continue to cover themselves by writing this product may contain XXX, the colour coded warning stripe would only warn consumers that the product is intended and likely to contain XXX.
Now while I am not generally in favour of stigmatising people by obliging them to wear evidence of their conditions (because it reminds me of Jews forced to wear yellows Stars of David during WW2), the warning codes could also be manufactured as lapel buttons so that children, and particularly infants, could wear a visual warning of their allergy where a teacher, parent or carer could not possibly miss seeing it.
Lastly, why not require that, in future, recipe books should also include warning codes with each recipe and/or a small icon beside any ingredient in the ingredient list. For example, beside Peanuts, mark it *K, where the asterisk is the designated alert icon and K is a reference, which can be checked in the index or a footnote, which explains the relevant allergy risk involved.
Managing food allergies and food allergy risks isn’t impossible, but a few more lighthouses would help. Currently, teachers, parents and carers are navigating the shoals of this dilemma on their own and trying to determine when and where it is safe to come ashore. As a responsible and caring society, it is up to us to establish the guideposts that make it easier and safer for all.
Thanks to What Can I Eat Contributor, Paul ACT