Allergies & Cross Contamination
This story of mine is unfortunately all-too-common. A heartfelt family meal that quickly turned into a very real, very scary life-or-death situation. One well-meaning relative who refused to heed my plea, and one famous pecan pie.
With the snow crunching under our feet, we herded our kids into the car, loaded with presents, protein pumpkin pie, sugar-free cheesecake bites and a side salad in tow for Christmas dinner at my mother's house.
Our kids love spending time at Nana's house, and I always feel safe knowing she makes sure not to have nuts or ingredients that aren't nut-free around the kids.After lots of hugs, laughter and joy at seeing family we hadn't seen in ages, I went into the kitchen to see if I could help, and Mom pulled me aside. You see, a relative had brought a pecan pie. Not just any pecan pie - her famous pecan pie - a longstanding family tradition of hers.
Now, I don't know if your family ever has awkward family dynamics — but I knew if I made a fuss about the pie — we'd be offending our well-meaning relative, who I shall call 'Mrs Pecan'.
Because, for Mrs Pecan, this was all very simple:
"Just don't eat the pie."
It's just not that easy.
As a mom who lives with the threat of deadly allergens every single day, I knew it wasn't nearly as simple as it looks from the outside.
Over 50% of all children hospitalized for anaphylaxis were exposed to allergens from ingredients they didn’t even know were there or weren’t listed on the label.
Look, I truly believe kids are pretty smart. Like my two with allergies, most kids carry their EpiPens, they don’t eat homemade food from friend’s houses, they check labels, they ask questions.
They. Are. Careful.
If you’ve ever struggled to breathe while your own body suffocates you, if you’ve ever faced the cold stare of death, you know that you never, ever want to experience that again.
Kids aren’t getting accidentally exposed because they ate food that clearly had nuts in it. They are getting exposed because the food they thought was safe was ‘cross-contaminated’ or had come into contact with allergens.
Cross-contact — or cross-contamination— happens when food comes into contact with another food containing an allergen and their proteins mix. The amount is so small it usually can’t even be seen, so many well-meaning adults don’t realize its there. This tiny amount of food protein can be deadly for a child with allergies.
Let’s return for a moment to Mrs Pecan, and her famous pie innocently sitting on the counter in a bustling kitchen with a buffet-style feast. Children and adults of all ages are using one serving spoon for one dish, and then another.
It happens so easily:
Let’s think of the young child who stuffs a piece of pie into their mouth and then reaches their sticky little hands across the table to grab a cookie. Or the great-aunt who is helping Grandma load her plate and uses the same fork.
Or the teenager who ate all the ice cream deciding to head back into the kitchen to add another scoop, not realizing the spoon already touched the pecans, or noticing the crumbs that fell off his plate.
Or the finger smudge on a spoon that looks clean, the handle of the water pitcher everyone has shared, the napkin that was touched but not used, the chair pushed back into the table with unwashed hands.
Each innocuous item effortlessly transformed into a deadly weapon.
Even the smallest trace of food on a spoon or spatula that is invisible to us can cause a deadly allergic reaction.
Now, if you don’t have children with allergies, you might be thinking, “Melanie, just tell her your children are allergic and ask her to leave her pie outside.”
For the rest of you with children who have allergies - you’ve likely experienced the emotional tightrope of managing family members who just don’t understand the risks:
Too often, it’s just not that simple.
People Just Don't Understand
In our family, Mrs Pecan has known for years two of our children almost died from a nut-exposure. She was asked not to bring a dish to ensure all the food was safe for everyone.
Yet she honestly believed her pie was perfectly safe on the counter. After all, our children are old enough to know not to put food in their mouth that isn’t safe.
She’s a good person. She would never intentionally harm anyone. Why should she be deprived of her family tradition?
This is Our Life
For most families who live with allergies, reading labels, checking ingredients, ensuring your kids have their own food, navigating sleep-overs and birthday parties, eating out, school lunches and saying no to your kids are all a part of the daily reality we are prepared to deal with.
But some of the most difficult situations we must manage are well-meaning family members who feel we are accusing them of trying to hurt our children when we ask them not to bring food that is unsafe, or when we try to explain why our child cannot eat the food they just prepared.
How do we convince family members who sometimes believe allergies aren’t real or are over-blown?
- “I baked these cookies myself, there’s nothing wrong with them.”
- “We didn’t have allergies like this when I was a kid!”
- “I think most of these kids with allergies are just exaggerating.”
How to do we deal with the pressure to ‘let it go’ just this once so everyone can have a nice Christmas?
How do we balance protecting our children with keeping family peace?
My answer: I don’t.
My most important job is to protect my children.
As a mother, my job is not to protect your feelings. It’s not my job to convince you that allergens you can’t see can still kill my child.
I want every parent to feel confident they are doing the right thing when they refuse to take the risk of cross-contact ‘in stride’ or just ‘let it go’ this once.
Cross contact kills.
You aren’t hysterical. You aren’t overreacting. You aren’t taking things too far.
You are doing your job.
I quietly asked my three children to skip the meal, visit with family in the living room, and we’d leave a bit early and have dinner at home.
And that’s exactly what we did.
Melanie Wildman, CEO & Founder of Nutracelle, is a mom of three beautiful children. Two of which have anaphylactic allergies. Creating Nutracelle has been a labour of love for Melanie as she wanted to ensure her family had safe, healthy, delicious foods that they could trust.
Melanie's mission is to bring back what our grandmother's knew: that the heart, and health, of our family is in the food we make.
Melanie seen below with her son Raine.
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