Food allergies, school, and the real world

School desks | When Peanuts Attack

“Eventually you’re going to have to teach that kid to live in the real world, you know.”

In the context of conversations about the management of food allergies in school, I have heard this phrase more times than I can count, offered as an argument against making accommodations to keep children with food allergies safe and included in school environments. And over the many times I’ve heard it, I have come to realize that it is a very illogical argument. There are at least two major logical problems with it:

First, let’s address that word, “eventually.”

Eventually, three-year-olds will be twelve-year-olds, and will need to cross streets on their own, without holding anyone’s hand. Does that mean we should let three-year-olds cross busy intersections alone now, without help, unsupervised?

Eventually five-year-olds will be sixteen, and will need to know how to drive. Does that mean we should hand five-year-olds the keys to our cars, and let them start practicing today?

Eventually ten-year-olds will be twenty, and will (we hope), move out of their parents’ houses, and live on their own. Does that mean we should make ten-year-olds, now, regularly spend entire weekends home alone, cooking, cleaning and managing the whole household for themselves?

Eventually children will be adults. And it’s absolutely true that it is vitally important to prepare all children for adulthood by teaching children how to make responsible decisions and take good care of themselves, children are not adults now, and should not be expected to take on adult responsibilities before they are ready.

Children are still learning how to navigate the “real world” adults live in, and need education, guidance, and assistance from adults to do so safely. Whether we are talking about crossing the street, or reading a food label, driving a car, or self-administering an EpiPen during a severe allergic reaction, children should not be expected to take on responsibilities they are not mentally or physically ready to handle.

Here is a simple fact that seems to come as a genuine surprise to some adults who lack experience dealing with food allergic kids, but is incontrovertibly true: children with food allergies are not naturally wiser or more mature than other children. Developing a dairy allergy does not magically grant a two-year-old the ability to read food labels for the word “milk;” getting diagnosed with a peanut allergy does not instantly make a three-year-old more capable of self-control when faced with a tempting candy bar. Having to carry an EpiPen does not necessarily cure a four-year-old of a fear of needles. A five-year-old with a tree nut allergy who is forced to sit in the hallway during a kindergarten cupcake party feels just as left out as any child that age excluded from a party would.

The issue of schoolchildren with food allergies being children, with a maturity level similar to that of children, does not disappear at the middle or high school level, either. Studies show that tweens and teens are impulsive, and take risks, because their still-developing brains lack adult-level impulse control. Teens with food allergies have the same teenage brains as teens without food allergies. Teens with food allergies are, also, subject to the same forces of school stress and peer pressure that teens without food allergies deal with. And like, other teens, as teens with food allergies gain independence and spend more time away from their parents, they sometimes face tough decisions that their still-growing brains may not be fully equipped to handle well.

In fact, teens with food allergies face a higher risk of suffering a fatal allergic reaction than young children with food allergies do.

Kids with food allergies are just that– kids. Like other kids, they are still learning; like other kids, they can be impulsive, or forgetful; they don’t always listen to adults, and don’t always follow directions. Like other kids, they want to be included in a group, and feel hurt when they are left out.

So, even though it’s true that children with food allergies will eventually be adults, it is not appropriate or safe to treat children now as if they were already adults.

Here is a second major logical problem with this argument:

Schools for children are not at all like “the real world” adults live in.

The rules for adults in the real world and the rules for children in school are very different, and for good reason. In order to function, schools need to have conduct rules in place that keep children focused on their schoolwork, and safety rules that protect children from their own immaturity and lack of life experience. It is very common for schools to have rules such as: you must follow the same schedule as the rest of the classroom. You must ask a teacher for permission to speak. You may not leave the classroom without permission. You may not leave the building during the school day. Etc.

But, some of the very same restrictions and rules that help schools function as safe, orderly places for educating children can actually cause pretty serious day-to-day challenges for children with food allergies, of a sort that most adults with food allergies do not actually face on a daily basis in “the real world.”

Imagine you are an adult with a peanut allergy. Imagine that you work at an office with a cafeteria area, where employees can eat lunches that they have brought from home. Suppose you have a co-worker who is relentlessly fond of eating peanuts and peanut butter, who nearly always brings these foods at lunch time, and sometimes even heats peanutty foods in the office microwave, causing allergenic proteins to aerosolize and fill the cafeteria with fumes that could, at best, make you sneeze and cough, or, at worst, send you to the hospital.

As an adult, working in an office environment, you have many choices.

Perhaps the simplest choice you have is to avoid the workplace cafeteria altogether. You can eat lunch at your desk, or go out every day to an allergy-friendly restaurant that is safe for you.

Or, you can have a friendly conversation with your coworkers, explain how this problem affects you, and ask if they would be willing to keep the peanuts at home. As an adult, your explanation of your health issues is likely to be taken seriously. Because the coworkers you are talking to about your problem are also adults, they can control what they choose to bring in for lunch daily; they can most likely easily choose to accommodate you.

If your coworkers are not accommodating, you can choose to take the issue up with your manager, or with your workplace’s human resources department. You can choose to file an ADA complaint. You can choose to ask to be transferred to a different office, or to work remotely. You can even choose if necessary, to quit, and find another job.

Now imagine that you are an elementary-aged child with a peanut allergy who eats lunch in a school cafeteria where, every day, other children bring lunches containing peanuts and peanut butter to school. And imagine that your school has made no accommodations for your allergy.

Can you choose to eat at your desk? Probably not. Most schools require children to eat lunch in the lunchroom. If your school makes no accommodations for your allergy, you will have to eat in the cafeteria, right next to the kids eating your allergen at school.

Can you choose to leave school and have lunch elsewhere? Almost certainly not! Elementary school students aren’t allowed to leave school without permission. They cannot drive themselves home, or to safe restaurants, to eat in safety and peace. Most kids in school have busy, working parents who would not necessarily be able to pick them up for lunch every day even if it were allowed.

Can you try to have a friendly conversation with your fellow students? Sure. But remember: they are kids. Do they understand what food allergies are? Will they believe you when you say, “This food you love to eat could kill me”? If your school is making no accommodations, it’s unlikely that the school has held any special awareness assemblies about food allergies to educate your fellow students. And anyway, if you’re in elementary school, your fellow students are probably not packing their own lunches: their parents are.

So do you, a child, try to contact your friends’ parents and explain?

What about contacting HR? Nope, no such department for students. The management? Well, that would be your teachers and school administrators, who, as we mentioned have already decided against accommodating you. Can you switch schools? Sure, if your parents can afford and are willing to move to a new school district, or pay for you to go to a private school, or arrange to have you homeschooled.

But what if none of those possibilities will work for your family?

The “real world” children encounter in school is a far different one than the “real world” adults encounter in the workplace. Children with food allergies who are in school have far less control over their own environment, and less freedom to make choices to keep themselves safe. For that reason alone, it’s essential for the safety of children with food allergies that adults in charge in the school environment cooperate with the families of children with food allergies to make sure those children can attend school safely.

Eventually, kids with food allergies will be adults living in an adult world. To help them get there safely, though, they need understanding and assistance now from the adults who have been charged with helping to guide them through life.

Road Tripping with Food Allergies, Part Three: Find Safe Food on the Road

Food allergy road sign | When Peanuts AttackSo you, savvy food allergy traveler, did the right thing, and planned ahead for a safe, food-allergy friendly road trip. You made a list of allergy-friendly restaurants on your route. You packed safe snacks– more than you thought you would need.

But you’ve had an unexpected travel delay, you’re nowhere near a safe restaurant, your food supplies are running low, and frankly, you’re flat-out sick of snack bars. Now what?

We all know travel plans are subject to change. Even careful travelers who plan ahead for safe food allergy management can run into circumstances that leave them at a loss for safe food options. Maybe you got a flat tire in Nowhere, Kansas (reader, it has happened to me!). Maybe the mini fridge in your hotel room died overnight, and several meals’ worth of carefully chosen allergy-safe food spoiled without warning. Maybe you accidentally left a suitcase full of safe snacks in a motel closet three entire states ago.

What do you do now?

Here are some ideas:

Try to find a grocery store.

You may be able to replace some safe, non-perishable food supply as you go if you stop at a town with a grocery store. That Kroger in Vandalia, MO may not stock the safe granola bars you packed, but at the very least, you know they will have pantry staples and fresh produce. And the selection at a new-to-you, out-of-town grocery store may surprise you. You might even find allergy-friendly brands that aren’t available in your state.

Check out the nearest gas station’s snack selection.

It may not be as unsafe as you think. You probably won’t want to risk eating hot food cooked at a gas station restaurant. But gas station convenience stores tend to stock a wide variety of travel-friendly pre-packaged foods– a few of which might be on your safe food list.

Look for safe options in less-than-safe restaurants.

Consider that even restaurants that you don’t ordinarily think of as allergy-safe places may have a few pre-packaged items you can eat, even if they can’t offer you a full safe meal. For example, a fast food restaurant may have oranges, or pre-packaged apple slices, as sides on the kids’ menu, that you can order separately. A coffee shop may have pre-bottled, sealed drinks and pre-packaged, sealed, ingredient-labeled snacks you can safely buy, even if their espresso bar is a cross contact nightmare. A hotel breakfast bar with a definitely-not-safe-for-you granola buffet might have a safe brand of pre-packaged yogurt or juice boxes stored separately in the fridge. A roadside cafe may have packaged crackers or fresh, uncut produce available if you ask.

But do try to make sure, if you are prone to contact or airborne reactions to your allergen, that you do not accidentally linger in an unsafe-for-you space while hunting for safe food. If you have a seafood allergy, and that seaside cafe is steaming shrimp, don’t stick around. If the very thought of peanut dust makes your eyes itch, and that roadhouse by the truck stop has peanut shells on the floor, back straight out.

And if any restaurant’s staff make you feel unwelcome or unsafe, walk away.

Remember: it’s better to skip a meal on the road than to eat an unsafe meal that causes a reaction.

Read more in this series:

Road Tripping with Food Allergies, Part One: Plan Your Route
Road Tripping with Food Allergies, Part Two: How to Pack

Road Tripping with Food Allergies, Part Two: How to Pack

Pack your suitcase | When Peanuts AttackPicture this: After a long day of driving that included a wrong turn at Albuquerque, a crazy detour around unexpected road construction, a sudden thunderstorm, and at least five separate arguments between two cranky kids in the back seat of your car, it’s well past dinner time, and you find yourself, not sitting down to eat at the amazing, allergy-friendly restaurant you made a reservation at two weeks ago, but instead, standing in front of a rest stop vending machine, staring in despair at a selection of 12 suspicious looking snack-foods you cannot see the ingredient labels for.

Fear not, food allergic friends! This sad scene won’t happen to you on your road trip, because you are going to follow these tips on packing for food-allergy-friendly travel by car. Here’s how to avoid running out of safe meals and snacks.

Pack more allergy-safe, non-perishable food than you think you will need.

During travel, delays and detours happen. Plan ahead for the possibility of missed turns and missed safe meal destinations– by packing extra emergency snacks. If your trunk space is limited, and you have to make a choice between packing safe food, or an extra pair of flip-flops, pack the food. You can buy a pair of souvenir flip-flops when you get to Florida.

While it’s a good idea to bring a cooler or an insulated bag with ice packs and a few tasty safe perishables, keep in mind that, unless you are traveling in an RV with a fridge, you will probably only reasonably be able to keep your food temperature-safe for a few hours on the road. When packing for a journey, focus primarily on nonperishable snacks that won’t quickly melt or spoil. Depending on your allergies, allergy-safe snack bars, dried fruit, applesauce, jerky, pretzels, crackers, or popcorn can be good shelf-stable options. Fresh fruits, like oranges and bananas, hold up well for a day or two in the car, and come in their own biodegradable packaging. (Make sure, if you do bring fresh fruit, that you wash it well before you pack it, so that you don’t find yourself trying to decide whether rinse your apple in a gas station bathroom sink.)

And if you do want to bring along some fresh potato salad, or your famous bacon-swiss-and-avocado sandwiches, consider freezing perishable foods overnight before packing them in your cooler, to help them stay in a safe temperature range longer.

If you find yourself strapped for cooler space for both perishables and cold drinks, consider freezing few bottles of water or and using them in place of ice packs.

Pack wet wipes and cleaning supplies to clean allergens from your hands and surfaces.

Washing your hands before you eat is a healthy practice in general, but for people with food allergies, hand washing before eating can be life-or-death essential. Keep a pack of hand wipes or baby wipes in a place in your car that is easy for both the driver and the passengers to reach. That way if you wind up having lunch on the go, you’ll be prepared.

Pack some extra cleaning wipes, or a spray cleaner and some paper towels, in your trunk to wipe down restaurant tables, picnic tables, and hotel room surfaces.

Consider packing your own small cooking appliances. When you’re traveling with food allergies, a mini microwave, a hot plate, an Instant Pot, or a rice cooker can really come in handy, allowing you to prepare safe meals on your own clean equipment in a hotel, at a campground, or in a relative’s home.

If you do decide to BYO small kitchen appliance, do a little research on the places you’ll be staying to make sure that your appliance will be allowed, and that you will have a safe, clean place to plug it in and set it up.

Pack your epinephrine autoinjectors, your antihistamines, and any other allergy medication you think you might need, and make a plan to keep your medicine in a safe temperature range and close at hand.

A person with a food allergy should never leave home without epinephrine! It’s especially important to make sure not to forget your epi when traveling. Triple-check before you leave to make sure that any medications you may need on your trip are packed safely in a place where you can easily access them in an emergency.

To maintain full effectiveness, epinephrine autoinjectors must be kept within a certain safe temperature range. This can be especially difficult to manage when traveling in the summer. Autoinjectors should never be left sitting for hours in a hot car! Exposure to high heat degrades epinephrine and can damage the autoinjector device.

Make sure before you leave that you have a way to keep your epinephrine from overheating– or freezing– on the road. Insulated epinephrine carriers can help, but they may not be enough when you are traveling far. And while ice packs can keep epinephrine autoinjectors cool, if you place an autoinjector directly in ice or next to an ice pack in a cooler or insulated bag, you risk freezing your medicine instead of overheating it!

Many people with food allergies recommend using the Frio brand evaporative cooling pack for trips in the summer heat. Originally designed to keep insulin at room temperature, it also works well to cool (but not freeze) epinephrine autoinjectors. And you don’t need a freezer to recharge the Frio– all you need is clean water. Just make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions to keep your medicine dry and keep your Frio working properly.

You can also try this road-tested food allergy travel trick: put your epinephrine in a small insulated bag, put a small ice pack in a second small insulated bag, and put them both in a larger insulated bag. This system protects the epinephrine autoinjector from direct contact with an ice pack, which helps to prevent freezing. If you do try this route, make sure you monitor the temperature of your epinephrine regularly to make sure it does not get too hot or too cold.

Read more food allergy travel tips:

Road Tripping with Food Allergies, Part One: Plan your Route
Road Tripping with Food Allergies, Part Three: Find Safe Food on the Road

Road Tripping with Food Allergies, Part One: Plan Your Route

Road trip | When Peanuts AttackAh, the open road. How it calls in the summer. Pack a suitcase, grab a friend, or your family, and get away from it all! Set out in your car with the windows down, the radio on, and a map to someplace you’ve never been before in your pocket. See the sights: rolling hills, cows, impressive sculptures of cows, and giant balls of twine!

Eat at random roadside cafes and truck stop diners!

Wait. Actually, if you have a food allergy, you should probably not do that last thing.

Use these actually road-tested tips for taking a safe road trip with a food allergy instead.

Before you go, plan your route.

When I say plan your route, I do not mean, put your destination into the map app on your phone on your way out the door.

I mean, a few days or weeks before your trip, sit down and do some real research. Try to figure out which roads you are likely to take, and which towns you are likely to make stops in, and map out essential allergy resources along your path. You can use Google Maps to find allergy-friendly restaurants you trust, and grocery stores where you can buy extra food in a pinch. Try to find at least two or three safe sources of food in each town you plan to stop for a meal in, in case it turns out that a restaurant or store on your route has changed policies or is closed.

You can also use Google Maps to locate hospitals along your route or at your destination, just in case.

You may want to print this information out and put it in a folder, in case you run into areas with poor cell phone service coverage and no WiFi.

While drawing up your road trip game plan, make sure to leave a little wiggle room in your stop and meal schedule for spontaneous side-trips or unscheduled detours along the way. (If the kids decide they really DO want to see that giant ball of twine, you won’t want to disappoint them, right?)

It’s extra work, but a bit of allergy-related planning before you leave can save you from big headaches later on the road.

Call ahead to hotels or motels you plan to stay at, to ask allergy-related questions and request accommodations in advance.

When you make your reservation, ask to have a note put into your reservation file that a person with a life-threatening food allergy will be staying in the room. Why is this important? Well, some hotels offer complementary snacks or meals to guests– and if you have a peanut allergy, you probably do not want someone handing you an unwrapped fresh-baked peanut butter cookie at the front desk, or leaving the “gift” of a bag of chocolate covered peanuts on your pillow. Also, some hotels offer special deep cleaning services for guests with allergies– to make extra sure that the previous guests’ cookie crumbs don’t wind up in your bed. Some hotels even offer special allergy-friendly rooms, with features like carpet-free floors, allergy-blocking mattress covers, and built-in air filters. But you won’t know if these services are available unless you ask!

And don’t forget to ask hotel staff whether a fridge or a microwave will be available for you to use. Even when hotels advertise that fridges and microwaves are available, it is sometimes the case that they are located not in the guest rooms but in shared common areas, or only available in certain rooms. So if keeping and cooking safe food in your room is part of your plan (and if you are traveling with a food allergy, it probably should be), make sure you discuss the details on exactly which kitchen appliances will be available, and where.

If you will be staying with friends or family along the way, make sure you speak with them well ahead of time about what your needs will be while traveling.

Remember that even very well-meaning and sympathetic people who do not manage food allergies in their own households on a daily basis may forget things that seem obvious to you. Talk to your hosts early enough in your planning phase that, if it turns out you do not feel comfortable staying with them after all, you will be able to make alternate arrangements.

Read more in this series:

Road Tripping with Food Allergies, Part Two: How to Pack.
Road Tripping with Food Allergies, Part Three: Find Safe Food on the Road.

Peanut-free Easter treats for kids

Chocolate Easter Bunny | When Peanuts AttackIt can be a bit of a challenge to find peanut-free treats for Easter baskets. Most of those cute chocolate bunnies and eggs on grocery and drug store shelves have a not-so-cute MAY CONTAIN PEANUTS OR TREE NUTS warning on the back. And even candies that don’t have allergen advisory labeling may pose some risk, since companies are not required by the FDA to label for the risk of accidental allergen cross contact.

Luckily, this year, the Easter Bunny has helpfully provided When Peanuts Attack with a list of allergy-friendly companies that make safe Easter treats for children with peanut allergies.

Peanut-free Easter chocolate:

Vermont Nut Free and Divvies make chocolate treats– including Easter bunnies and other holiday favorites– in facilities that are 100% free from peanuts and tree nuts. Treats from Divvies are also vegan.

Peanut-free Easter jelly beans:

Gimbal’s jelly beans are not just peanut-free– they are free from all of the top 8 major food allergens. Unlike the chocolate bunnies at Vermont Nut Free and Divvies, which are a seasonal treat only, you can get your jelly bean fix from Gimbal’s year round. Surf Sweets also makes jelly beans (and gummy bears and worms) that are top 8 allergen free.

Peanut-free Easter cookies:

Many varieties of Lofthouse Cookies are made in a peanut-free facility, and they tend to offer seasonal decorated cookies for each major holiday. (Just make sure to check the package carefully as Lofthouse does make some cookies that contain nuts in a second, separate facility. The peanut-free flavors are clearly labeled as such with a peanut-free logo.) Cookies from Fancypants Bakery are also made in a dedicated peanut-free facility (that is also free of tree nuts).

Treats without tricks for a food allergy friendly Halloween

Participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project this year, but stumped on finding food allergy friendly, food-free treats for Halloween? Here are some ideas for treats without tricks:

Teal Pumpkin treats: spinning tops
Spinning tops.

Teal Pumpkin treats: plastic spiders
Plastic spiders.

 

Teal Pumpkin treats: bouncy balls

Bouncy balls.

Teal Pumpkin treats: glow sticks

Glow sticks.

Teal Pumpkin treats: water bottles

Water bottles. (Seriously — these were my most popular item last year — do you know how far kids walk trick-or-treating?)

Want to put out a separate bowl of allergy-friendly candy, too, in addition to your food-free Teal Pumpkin treats? Try these nut-free and top 8 free Halloween candies.

Questions on how to participate? Find more information about the Teal Pumpkin Project on When Peanuts Attack, or go directly to FARE’s Teal Pumpkin information page.

There is no A for effort in food allergies

FAILIt does not matter how much love you put into it.

It does not matter how long you spent preparing it.

It does not matter how pretty it looks, or how much money you spent on it.

It does not matter whether it’s delicious.

It doesn’t matter how hard you feel you tried to make the food safe, or how much you wanted the food to be safe.

If a food is not safe for a person with a food allergy to eat, it’s just not. And you should not expect a person with a food allergy to eat it.

So you tracked down that peanut-free cupcake mix– the expensive one, that says “nut-free facility” in  bold print, right on the box. You scrubbed out your pans, and you made sure that you used clean bowls and spoons. You made the frosting from scratch– just butter and sugar and vanilla, you swear! And you checked the ingredients on that vanilla, too? Great job.

But.

Then you forgot, and put those sprinkles on top. The ones that say, on the back of the package, MAY CONTAIN PEANUTS.

Oops.

Now you’re not sure it’s safe.

You went to all this trouble. You really, really wanted to make a safe cake. The sprinkles were an accident. And now you’re so disappointed, to think that all of your earnest effort might go to waste. I get that. Really, I do.

But . . .

If you focus on your feelings now, instead of the health and safety of the person you meant to make a cake for, and try to hide your mistake, or pressure that person into eating food you’re not sure is safe,  you will be risking making a small mistake into a very, very, very big mistake.

A call-the-ambulance mistake.

That’s not really what you want to do, is it?

I certainly hope not.

So, take a deep breath. Own up. Tell the truth.

When it comes to cooking for a person with a food allergy, there is no A for effort. Food, no matter how lovingly prepared, if not safe, IS NOT SAFE, and should not be eaten. The most delicious food in the world is not worth risking a life over. And you need to learn not to take that personally.

How to report an allergic reaction to the FDA or USDA

U.S. government chemist Margaret FosterDid you know that undeclared food allergens are a leading cause of food recalls in the United States? According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), from September 2009 to September 2012, about one-third of reports to the agency for serious food safety violations involved top 8 food allergens that were not properly listed on food labels.

The foods most often reported to the FDA for containing undeclared allergens include bakery products (like bread, cakes, and cupcakes), snack foods, candy, and dairy products. The allergens most often involved in FDA food safety recalls have been milk, wheat and soy.

The FDA has found that common causes of recalls for undeclared allergens in foods include accidental cross contact due to the processing of multiple types of food on shared equipment, and labeling errors that cause allergenic ingredients that were intentionally included in a food not to be properly listed on the ingredient label. On rare occasions foods are contaminated with allergens, either deliberately or accidentally, through no fault of the food manufacturer, before they ever reach the factory, as was the case in 2015 when a spate of recalls for undeclared peanut involving a wide variety of items containing the spice cumin happened after a large supply of ground cumin was adulterated (possibly deliberately) with ground peanut shells and/or peanut flour.

The FDA and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) urge Americans who have experienced allergic reactions after eating products that were not properly labeled for allergen content to report those reactions to the appropriate food safety agency. Reactions to most common pre-packaged, processed foods such as bread, cereal, crackers, snack bars, fruit snacks, prepared frozen meals, bottled drinks, etc. should be reported to the FDA. Reactions to fresh meat products, like fresh cuts of beef, chicken or turkey, should be reported to the USDA. (If you are not sure which agency to contact for a particular food product, I suggest trying the FDA first, as the FDA is responsible for about 80% of U.S. food.)

You can make a report to the FDA or the USDA by following the directions at the links below:

Report an allergic reaction to the FDA

Report an allergic reaction to the USDA

Help kids with food allergies have a safe and happy Halloween

Have a safe and happy HalloweenNOTICE for anyone who would like to help keep the 1 out of 13 American kids who have food allergies safe and out of the hospital tonight:

Consider the following options for safer Halloween treats:

Nut-free candies: Tootsie Rolls, Tootsie Pops, Charms lollipops, Charms Blow Pops, Dubble Bubble bubble gum, Charleston Chew, Dots gumdrops, Sweetarts, Nerds, Laffy Taffy, Smarties.

Top-8-allergen-free candies: Dum Dums lollipops, YumEarth lollipops, YumEarth gummy candies, Surf Sweets jellybeans, Surf Sweets gummy candies.

Candy alternatives: Bouncy balls, glow bracelets, glow sticks stickers, plastic spiders, plastic skulls, pencils, bubble bottles.

Note that even allergy-friendly candies might be packaged with candies that contain common food allergens, especially in holiday mix bags. Some children can react to trace amounts of allergen. So always check with a food allergic child’s parents before allowing a child with a food allergy to eat a piece of candy, even if you think it is safe.

If you are planning to participate in the Teal Pumpkin Project, and welcome children with food allergies and other dietary restrictions to trick-or-treat safely at your home by offering non-food treats, like the candy alternatives listed above, make sure to go and get detailed Teal Pumpkin Project directions and a free printable Teal Pumpkin sign at FARE.

If a child with a food allergy will be attending a party at your home tonight, ASK THE CHILD’S PARENTS what foods are and are not safe for that child to eat. Do not assume that a child can safely eat a food just because “It’s not peanut-flavored” or “it doesn’t look like it has dairy.” Many foods contain hidden allergens and even trace amounts of an allergen can cause a severe allergic reaction for some people. If a child with a food allergy says “No thank you” to a cookie or cupcake or piece of candy you offer tonight, please listen and don’t push, even if you think the food you are offering is allergy-safe. Kids with food allergies aren’t being picky or rude when they refuse an offered treat. They are just trying to stay healthy. It’s actually very hard for kids with food allergies to say “No thank you” all night long while other people all around them are enjoying fun food without a care!

If a child with a life-threatening food allergy will be in left your care tonight, make sure that child will be carrying epinephrine. Ask what you can do to help recognize the signs of an allergic reaction, and ask whether the child or the child’s parents would be willing to train you on how to administer the child’s medicine, just in case. YOU CAN LEARN TO USE AN EPINEPHRINE AUTOINJECTOR. These devices are very safe and easy to use. It takes just minutes of training to learn how to save a life.

Happy Halloween, and thanks for helping to keep kids with food allergies safe!

The FDA says people with peanut allergies should avoid all ground cumin for now. How do you?

How to avoid cumin | When Peanuts AttackAfter months of recalls of cumin, spice mixes that contain cumin, and hundreds of thousands of pounds of packaged foods that contain cumin due to the presence of undeclared peanut and tree nut ingredients, on February 18th, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally issued a public advisory statement warning people with peanut allergies “to consider avoiding products that contain ground cumin or cumin powder.”

The advisory goes on to say:

The FDA is continuing to identify companies that received shipments of the ground cumin that contained undeclared peanuts and work with them to remove these products from the market. While this investigation is underway, the FDA wants consumers who are highly allergic or sensitive to peanuts to consider taking precautions with any product [emphasis mine]—not just those that have been recalled—that contains ground cumin. The FDA will continue to update the list of recalled products.

 

So basically: multiple shipments of ground cumin recently imported into the United States (and, I should note, other countries, including Canada and the UK) have been found to contain undeclared peanut protein. The FDA does not know how many U.S. spice companies may have received shipments of peanut-contaminated cumin; the FDA does not know for certain which overseas spice suppliers may be contributing to this problem; the FDA does not know how many food products the contaminated cumin may already have been added to; the FDA does not know which future shipments of ground cumin may also be contaminated; the FDA is working on it.

And in the meantime, if peanuts happen to be a thing that can kill you in small doses, the FDA is gently advising you to “consider” avoiding all ground cumin, all spice mixes that contain ground cumin, all packaged foods that contain ground cumin, and all packaged foods that contain unspecified “spices” that may or may not include ground cumin.

So.

How do you do that?

I’ve been trying to help my peanut allergic son avoid cumin in his diet for a few months now, ever since I first got an inkling of the magnitude of this recall situation, and let me tell you: it’s not easy. Here are some tips:

 

Go beyond reading food labels.

 

This is really important: According to U.S. food labeling law, cumin is not considered one of the top 8 food allergens. That means that FDA and USDA labeling regulations do not require that cumin be labeled under the same “plain language” labeling rules as ingredients derived from milk, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish or soy. The official guidance the FDA offers food makers on labeling their products for spices is:

How are spices, natural flavors or artificial flavors declared in ingredient lists?

Answer: These may be declared in ingredient lists by using either specific common or usual names or by using the declarations “spices,” “flavor” or “natural flavor,” or “artificial flavor.”

“INGREDIENTS: Apple Slices, Water, Cane Syrup, Corn Syrup, Modified Corn Starch, Spices, Salt, Natural Flavor and Artificial Flavor”

However, products that are spices or spice blends, flavors or colors must list each ingredient by name.

So if you are looking at any packaged food that is not actually container of spice or spice mix, know that the ingredient label does not have to list cumin even if cumin is an ingredient. Cumin could be listed as “spice,” “spices,” “flavor,” or “natural flavor.” Even a food label that declares some spices by name in the ingredient list may not declare all of the spices by name. For example, a food label for sausage might read, “Pork, salt, black pepper, spices,” or “Chicken, salt, oregano, natural flavors.” Either of those items might contain cumin, even though they do not explicitly say so on the label.

This is perfectly legal. Food companies in the U.S. are just flat out not legally required to specifically list spices or flavorings on ingredient labels, or be consistent about how they do list specific spices and flavorings when they do bother to list them. (Yes, this can and does cause major problems for people with food allergies to spices or flavorings, and I if I listen hard, think I can hear a chorus of non-top-8 food allergy sufferers right now, shouting, “Welcome to our world, people with peanut allergies!”)

This means if you are currently avoiding cumin due to peanut contamination risk, you are going to need to call or email companies that make packaged foods that are likely to contain cumin and ask them whether their products contain cumin. There is no easy way around this. There is no magical list of U.S. products that contain / do not contain cumin. To stay away from cumin for the duration of this recall, you are going to have to do some serious food ingredient research homework.

 

What foods are likely to contain cumin? If you don’t know, it’s time to find out.

 

If you don’t cook with cumin often in your own kitchen, you may not be that familiar with  which foods are most likely to contain it. Cumin is considered a warm, earthy, peppery spice, often used to flavor foods that are thought of as “hot” or “spicy.” Here are a few to watch out for:

Spice mixes: BBQ rubs, chili flavoring, curry spice mixes, spicy stir fry mixes, sausage spice mixes, and spices labeled as Mexican, Cajun, Middle Eastern, Indian or Chinese spice mixes often contain cumin.

Spicy sauces: Cumin is a common ingredient in barbecue sauce, curry sauce and many stir fry sauces.

Salsa: Cumin is commonly used in Mexican-style cooking and is sometimes used to flavor salsa.

Meats: Spicy packaged meats such as sausages or pre-seasoned, barbecue-style pork and beef cuts are likely to contain cumin– thousands of pounds of these types of items have already been recalled for undeclared peanut due to the use of contaminated cumin.

Chili: Just as cumin is a common ingredient in chili spice mixes, cumin is an ingredient in many commercial chili recipes. Several chili products have already been involved in this set of recalls.

Seasoned black beans or black bean soup: Cumin is a common seasoning for spicy dishes that contain black beans. Two Goya products that contain black beans have already been recalled for undeclared peanut due to contaminated cumin.

Veggie burgers: Any sort of “spicy black bean” or “southwestern style” veggie burgers are likely to contain cumin; Morningstar Farms has already recalled some lots of black bean veggie burgers for undeclared peanut due to the use of contaminated cumin.

Hummus: Cumin is commonly used to flavor hummus.

Any BBQ flavored anything: Since barbecue rubs, sauces and spice mixes often contain cumin, any food that advertises itself as barbecue-flavored needs to be on your check-twice list.

Any spicy food that advertises Southwestern, Mexican, Cajun, Middle Eastern or Indian flavor: cumin is a signature spice ingredient in all of these regional cuisines.

Foods that are not likely to contain cumin include fresh whole produce, unflavored meats, plain breads and pastas, unflavored rice, unflavored beans etc. For the duration of the recall, if you are craving spicy foods that ordinarily contain cumin, it’s probably best to skip the store-bought pre-packaged options and make your spicy dishes yourself, with simple whole ingredients and spices you have checked on and trust.

 

Don’t forget about restaurants.

 

The FDA alert on peanuts in cumin says nothing specific about avoiding restaurant food– but that’s because the FDA does not actually regulate food safety in restaurants; that’s handled by a patchwork of local health departments and agencies, and the USDA. The USDA website currently redirects people with queries about the cumin recalls to the FDA advisory statement, which is not super helpful if you’re trying to get safety advice about food that is not regulated by the FDA.

But I would say it’s safe to assume that many restaurants may be serving up contaminated cumin at the moment– and they may not even know it. Literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of food, spices and spice mixes from dozens of different companies have been recalled for undeclared peanut since November 2014, so it would be easy for even a diligent restaurant chef to miss an item on the list. Besides, according to the FDA, the investigation into this problem is still underway, so it is entirely possible that multiple brands of spice products, meats, sauces, and other food items that contain contaminated cumin have yet to be recalled and are still being sold to restaurants as well as consumers.

Since cumin allergies are not common, restaurant servers and chefs may not be accustomed to requests from customers to avoid cumin in dishes, and given the U.S. food labeling law loopholes mentioned above, restaurant staff may honestly not even know which of their dishes contain cumin.

For anyone with a peanut allergy, I would recommend exercising extreme caution eating at restaurants at this time– even when eating out at restaurants with a good reputation for being food allergy friendly.

So is any cumin safe for people with peanut allergies to eat right now? Do we really really have to avoid all of it?

 

So here’s the honest truth: all those foods I listed above that are likely to contain cumin? Like, you know, BBQ sauce, black bean veggie burgers, hummus, burritos, enchiladas, chana masala?

I LOVE THOSE FOODS. I LOVE THEM. I love cumin!

NOT MORE THAN I LOVE MY AMAZING, KIND BRILLIANT HANDSOME GENEROUS CREATIVE FUNNY AND WONDERFUL FIRSTBORN AND ONLY CHILD, of course. So I’d happily give cumin up, just as I’ve given up peanuts (and peanut butter and granola bars and M&Ms and Reese’s Peanut Butter cups and most kinds of chocolate actually and Pad Thai). If I had to ban peanut entirely from my home to keep my kid safe? I would do that. NO QUESTION.

But is there a way for me to get safe, peanut-free cumin to make safe versions of cumin-heavy dishes from scratch? Luckily, there do seem to be a few safe options for cumin-lovers who need to avoid peanut. Here are some tips for tracking down peanut-free cumin to use at home:

Whole cumin is safer than ground cumin: So far, all of the peanut-contaminated cumin found in the U.S., UK and Canada has been ground cumin. There is probably a reason for this: ground cumin looks very similar to peanut flour and / or ground peanut shells. So if, say, a cumin supplier suffering from a cumin shortage caused by a particularly bad cumin harvest in India this season did, say, want to, shall we say, stretch cumin shipments by illegally adding in a similarly colored, cheaper filler, adding peanut flour or ground peanut shells to ground cumin would be the way to go. It would be much harder to hide fillers like peanut shells or peanut flour in whole cumin seed, which looks like this:

Whole cumin seed | When Peanuts Attack

 

You can look for recipes that use whole cumin seeds instead of ground cumin, or buy whole cumin and then grind it yourself at home with a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle.

Some spice brands are safer than others: Spice maker McCormick, well known in food allergy circles already for having a peanut-free processing facility, has issued a public statement to reassure their customers that none of their cumin-containing products, have been involved in any of the recent cumin recalls; McCormick states that they source their cumin as whole seeds, clean it to remove impurities, and then grind it in their own peanut-free facilities.

 

Have any other single-ingredient spices been involved in recalls for undeclared allergens lately?

 

Yes. A couple of brands of paprika were recently recalled in the U.S. for undeclared peanut and in the UK for undeclared almond. I do not know whether this is a separate, isolated incident, or is directly connected to the cumin recalls. The FDA has yet to issue any sort of general warning about paprika as they have about cumin, but more paprika recalls are definitely something to keep an eye on over the next few weeks.

 

What about people who are allergic to tree nuts, but not peanuts? Do they still need to avoid cumin?

 

Honestly I do not know why the FDA failed to include a warning to people with tree nut allergies in this advisory statement. While most of the recent cumin recalls have involved undeclared peanut, it is absolutely the case that a few of the recalls of cumin / products that contain cumin– including recalls for Ortega taco spice and Cool Runnings curry seasonings— also involved undeclared almonds. And as mentioned above, one of the recent paprika recalls was related to undeclared almonds. If you have an allergy to almonds or other tree nuts, then you should absolutely be paying close attention to this spice recall situation, too.