If you, or someone in your family, has food allergies, then you’re probably aware of issues with cross-contamination. At least while at home. But what about dining out? Or do you even try?
I have only one food allergy, coconut, and it’s mild. But I develop severe migraines to certain foods and additives – some tree nuts and MSG (monosodium glutamate). I am talking lock-me-in-a-dark-room for the rest of the day migraines. Hence, I am very careful about where and what I eat.
I am especially mindful of how food is handled and what the staff actually knows. And I’m ever-vigilant to ways that cross-contamination can happen. Following are some of my observations.
Food Allergy Safety – What to watch for:
- Too often, restaurant employees are not trained in how to avoid cross-contamination. They may use the same utensil for more than one food. Or they could touch the food already on the plate with the serving utensil. The next time that utensil is used, you have cross-contamination between the various foods.
- Restaurant staff may not have full knowledge of ingredients in food. At chain restaurants, there may be no one on site that is fully aware of ingredients. Other places, they may not be aware of all the food sources. I went to one place that told me they did not have MSG in their food. But another employee said that they did have it in the prepared sauces they bought.
- In buffet lines or similar serving styles, employees may use the same utensils for multiple foods or even use gloves. After a while, all of the foods are cross-contaminated.
- Another issue has to do with shared cooking oils. Any food cooked in the oil can be contaminated with traces of the food that was cooked in the same oil earlier.
- Self-serve buffets and salad bars – As if problems can’t be bad enough, imagine how much worse they can be when people in the general public are handling the food. If you’ve ever watched people, you quickly realize they are unaware of any cross-contamination issues. (And we won’t even get into the discussion of when they last washed their hands.
I personally am a purist when it comes to foods. Perhaps that comes from my many years of working in a laboratory. When I worked in research, I was in charge of growing things – whether they were bacterial cells or mammalian cells. I had two concerns: sterility and purity. Sterility was an issue because any airborne bacteria could kill all the organisms I was working with. I’ve seen it happen – I would get to the tail end of a 5-10 day experiment only to find that my cultures had been contaminated. Back to the drawing board! Purity was an issue because the experiments I ran were carefully controlled. Everything had to be exactly the same each time.
This meant that what I used to dip into each ingredient had to be different. If I used the same utensil, then my ingredients were no longer pure. To this day I cringe when I see anyone doing this with the food in a kitchen. And I am known to go ballistic if I see bread crumbs in the butter!
Why am I telling you all this? It ruins my whole day if I wind up with a migraine because of cross-contamination. And believe me, it has happened in many of the ways I describe above. Migraines are debilitating. And as a neurological disorder, they can cause serious issues. But, my heart breaks every time I read about a young child who dies from anaphylactic shock because of cross-contamination of their food. I want parents to be aware of all these possibilities.
What can you do if you’re concerned about food allergy safety? Either for yourself or someone you know? I believe awareness is your number one tool. You can talk to management at a restaurant. For me, I have decided not to eat at restaurants that have MSG in any of their foods. It’s a tough decision, but several recent migraines have made me decide to err on the side of caution.
What do you do to keep your family safe from food allergens?