Cross-contamination is something that occurs when a food that is considered allergen-free is somehow compromised by coming into contact, inadvertently, with an allergenic substance.
The following stories demonstrate how safe foods can easily become unsafe. Anyone who prepares food for an individual with food allergies should be diligent in avoiding similar situations.
When my son A.J. was four and in preschool, I was one of the parent volunteers. Each
day we rotated what we were in charge of. There were three of us; one would
supervise hand washing, one would pour the drinks, and one would place a
snack at each seat. A.J., of course, had his own snack.
Well, the one day
when it was my day to supervise hand washing, the snack the other kids were
getting was peanut butter cookies. The girl in charge of snacks
accidentally placed a cookie on A.J.'s napkin. The other girl reminded her
that A.J. couldn't have that, and she quickly removed the cookie, but not
the napkin. I was in the other room with the kids, so I had no idea any of
this took place. They then placed A.J.'s safe snack on the same napkin.
short time after the kids started eating, A.J. was covered with hives. I
had no idea how this could be possible, as I knew his snack was completely
safe. That is when one of the girls mentioned what had happened.
It was an
eye-opener for the whole preschool. Before this, no one was aware of how
easily a person with food allergies could react.
J. Melissa Peeler's Story
A friend and I went to a Texas Hold'em Poker
tournament at a BBQ place near her house. I never eat
their food, as they fry in peanut oil and I worry
about cross contamination in the food, and they have
an open barrel of peanuts for people to snack on. I
never thought about the dangers other than eating, as
I have never had a contact reaction before.
We started about 7:00, and took a break at 8:15. I
drank iced tea the whole time, and bought a snack bag
of factory sealed corn chips that I know are safe for
me on the break. About 15 minutes after the break my
chest started feeling tight. I thought it was an
asthma attack, so I took my puffer inhaler.
I didn't feel better, so when we left at 8:45 I took
my friend straight home, picked up my dog who I had
left at her house, and headed home thinking I would
take a nebulizer treatment when I got home. I didn't
I got five blocks from her house when I started to feel
that scary tickling in my throat that indicates it is
starting to swell. I pulled over to the side of the
road and administered my epinephrine injector. I
couldn't go straight to the hospital because I had my dog
with me, so I then turned around and went back to my
friend's house, dropped off my dog, and asked her to
drive me to the emergency room.
When I got to the ER, I was starting to appear blue
around my mouth, had hives covering my chest and arms,
my throat was still swelling, and my blood oxygen
level was in the 70s. My blood pressure was in the
normal range, probably due to the epinephrine. They
rushed me back, and started oxygen and administering
IV medications and got the reaction under control.
The next day I visited my allergist. She believes the
most likely culprits are either some of the peanut
dust got in my open tea glass, the Styrofoam cup was
contaminated, or people playing cards and eating
peanuts got the oils on the cards and I transferred
the oil to myself from eating the corn chips while
playing with the same cards. My complacency could
have cost my life.
I know it was a fluke, but it was extremely scary, for
both me and my friend. I have had to give up on the
tournaments and I no longer even visit a restaurant
that fries in peanut oil or serves whole peanuts.
Melissa Taylor's Story
My story starts with a mystery that happened years ago.
Every time my mom made me a lunch, I got mysteriously ill. Every time I made my own lunch, I was fine.
The first thing a person with food allergies does is to look at ingredients. However, we both used exactly the same ingredients and the exact same foods when preparing the lunches. (When it comes to lunch, I basically have the choice to take it or leave it!)
It really seemed like there would no answer to the problem. In fact, I tried to convince myself that it wasn't actually the lunch making me sick, but it continued to happen.
I tried to pay closer attention to each of the foods on the plate. With this closer observation, I noticed that the bread on a "prepared by Mom" sandwich seemed a bit dried out and different than the bread on sandwiches I made, though it was the same bread.
"Mom," I asked one day, "what's wrong with the bread?"
"I toast it," she replied. "Isn't it better toasted?"
The toaster happened to also be used for toasting breads that contained gluten. I am highly allergic to gluten.
The end of toasted bread ended my problems . . . and also taught a valuable lesson about how food equipment can contaminate what would otherwise be a safe food.
I am allergic to milk--it causes major eczema. Last year I accompanied a couple friends to a cheese festival for a concert. I didn't intend on eating anything else except what was in my lunch box, so there wouldn't be any problems. By the end of the evening, my eyes were all puffed up and red around them. Great, my eczema was back.
I spent days trying to figure out how I could have had enough exposure to cause that much of a reaction. When I found out, it reminded me that no matter how long you've known about your allergies, you can always find new ways of cross-contamination! I was the one causing my reaction through my sports-type water bottle (the kind you pull to open and push down to close) by shaking hands with people I was meeting, then opening and closing my bottle with the same hand. And to think that I had packaged my sandwich in a way that I would not have to touch my sandwich with my hands to eat it . . . but I never thought of the water bottle. I can tell you right now, these bottles don't come into the house any more!!!
Another instance of cross-contamination also occurred with accidental dairy exposure.
My father likes to cook with butter. Being allergic to milk, well, I don't eat what he cooks in butter. I always make myself the same thing, but in a different pan.
One time I noticed that I had residual eczema near my eyes that never went away, and I was really careful about everything I was eating so it couldn't be that!
One night, however, it became obvious what it was! My dad was making a steak in a pan and mine was cooking at the same time . . . in a different pan, using different utensils, separate everything . . . expect for separate space! My dad's steak was cooking in butter that was splashing to mine! I was looking at the little splashes of butter and they were landing right on my steak!!! Since then, my steak is cooked either before or after my dad is done using the stove.
We eat dried beans on a regular basis. Every other day, we soak and
cook another pot of beans. I always sort through the beans, because
that's just what one does. Sticks, stones, bad beans, and other
detritus find their way into the bags.
I had a bag of yellow eye beans on the counter the other day. My hubby
just dumped two cups in a colander, swished around some water, and
I didn't realize that he hadn't sorted them. I dipped out a half cup of beans
to cook with veggies and broth for my dinner. I took a bite when
it was done to check the seasoning. I immediately spat out the
spoonful into the sink, because I thought I'd spotted something odd
in my bowl.
Upon spooning around in my bowl, I found it. It was a soybean.
I thought that I'd be okay. A couple minutes later, I was choking/
attempting to gasp, and turning all my purses inside out, looking for
epinephrine. I'd just returned from a 10-day trip to Indiana and I'd
changed purses/backpacks, so my epinephrine pens were scattered (I hadn't unpacked
yet). I ended up having to settle for oral/inhaled epinephrine, but
was 10 seconds from calling 911. Luckily, I didn't have a biphasic
reaction, though the regular antihistamine use I required the rest of
the night probably prevented one.
Needless to say, he now knows that I really do mean it when I tell
him that beans must be sorted.
Other cases of cross contamination which have resulted in major
unhappiness: non-stick cookware (it holds gluten particles from previous cooking),
wooden spoons (ditto), and rubber gloves (latex allergy).