I am going to talk about some unique issues and situations I have found in dealing with my daughter’s nut allergies. These unique and special situations are Ice Cream, Breads, Halloween Candy, & Birthday Parties. As I said these are issues I run into in dealing with nut allergies. These may not pertain to you if you are dealing with other allergens. Cross-contamination issues vary depending on the allergen you are dealing with.
When it comes to ice cream and food allergies there are many issues to consider. The first thing to think about is if this ice cream is being purchased in an ice cream store where they scoop the ice cream and add the toppings in front of you or are you purchasing it pre-packaged in a supermarket or other store. Just because the brand of ice cream is the same – for example Haagen Dazs or Carvel – does not mean that the cross-contamination issue is the same in an ice cream parlor versus the pre-packaged ice cream of the same brand.
When trying to find a “safe” ice cream for my daughter to eat I got very frustrated. Every company I called told me that they do not label for cross-contamination and then I usually got some sort of scripted statement about how they follow “good manufacturing practices.” I was outraged that it was expected that I should trust their “practices”. I wanted something more concrete. After speaking with a lot of ice cream companies and some really nice customer service people I got to understand what these practices were and finally became comfortable with them. When manufacturing ice cream they will run a lot if not all flavors on the same manufacturing line. What they do is start with the least allergenic flavor first, which is usually, vanilla, and then go from there. They do huge cleanings of the equipment between the flavors, some as long as 8 hours, to help reduce the risk of cross-contamination. They do not label for cross-contamination because then every flavor would have a “cross contamination” statement. A few companies I spoke with mentioned that they felt they would lose customers if they put the statement on the packaging because people would see it and just not buy it. Is that philosophy right or wrong? I do not know but that is just the way it is. For now.
So this is how I handle it. I call the company and inquire specifically about their manufacturing practices. I ask a lot of questions and double check the things mentioned above, what order do you run your ice cream in, what are you cleaning practices etc.. In my daughter’s case she is only allergic to a few nuts. I ask if they use those nuts in any of their ice creams and then I decide how I feel about the possible risk of her having a cross-contamination reaction. FYI my daughter has had a reaction to something labeled “may be cross-contaminated with tree-nuts.” A relative gave it to her by mistake. They thought because one Duncan Hines product was OK for her to eat that they would all be OK. That relative forgot to read the label!!!!!!
The other thing to be aware of are “mix-ins.” You know the stuff in your ice cream like: cookie dough, pretzels, marshmallows, Heath Bar Crunch etc.. The ice cream companies do not make these “mix-ins”. So now you have to think about what they are and where they came from. Some of the companies keep detailed information on their mix-ins and require that the people who sell them the mix-ins give them the information on allergens and cross-contamination. But realize that you are not speaking directly to the people who make the stuff and we are back to “trusting” that other people know what they are talking about. I know I sound like I have huge trust issues but I can not count how many times I have questioned people who claimed they knew what they were talking about only to find out their knowledge was not up to my standards. At this point if you really want a flavor of ice cream with a mix-in and feel comfortable with the information given by the ice cream company then it is up to you if you want to serve it. If you are not comfortable maybe the ice cream company will give you the place they bought the “mix-in” from and you could call them. The other option is to stick to vanilla since it was the first flavor run on the line or do not eat ice-cream from that company. Keep calling until you find a company or manufacturer whose practices and policies suit you.
If you are buying ice cream in an ice cream parlor first you need to talk with the store manager or employees and find out what they do to minimize cross-contamination in the store. Do they wash the scoops between uses? I do not mean dip all of the scoops in the same hot water container. That right there is cross-contamination. If they do this then all of the ice cream in the store is constantly getting contaminated. First it is used in peanut butter chocolate ice cream and then your vanilla. Do they use a separate spoon for each topping? If they are using one spoon in all of the toppings then all of them have been cross contaminated. Some of the chains are very allergy friendly. They will go into the back and use a fresh tub of the flavor ice cream you want. They will use sterilized scoopers to scoop the ice cream and open new bags of toppings for you. Others are not so nice. You really need to ask a lot of questions. Also you need to know the manufacturing practices of the ice cream brand itself. (See Above on how to deal with those issues)
I wanted to mention bread because I have found it to be a unique topic in food production. Some of the bread companies I have called do not label for cross-contamination. To make their breads “fresh” they have manufacturing plants all over the country. The main customer service people have information on what allergens are in each plant but you need to give them a code off the package of bread so they can look up that specific loaf or manufacturing plant. Here you will again find yourself in the supermarket calling customer service about each loaf you want to buy. Now this is not true for all bread companies but I felt it was important enough to mention that you need to find out what the manufacturing policy is for the bread companies you use.
Besides being careful that the candy you get on Halloween is safe and individually wrapped how do you know if it is safe for people with allergies? Most candy for Halloween is sold in “bulk,” those big bags, and the individual items inside are marked “not labeled for individual resale.” Which means that each piece will not have nutrition information, ingredients, or any allergen warnings on it. So how do you know if it is safe? Well you don’t unless you know the people giving you the candy and / or you can see the big bag that the candy came in with all of the information on it.
So now what do you do when you do have it? In my opinion at this point you need to use your judgment based on the extent of the allergies or come up with alternative ideas of ways to spend Halloween.
• You could throw a Halloween party at your house where you are in control of the candy and skip trick-or-treating all together.
• Plan in advance to trick-or-treat only at friends’ houses where you can approve the candy before hand or arrange to have allergy safe candy there for your family.
• Trick-or-treat and collect money for a charity. Then buy your own Halloween candy (using your own money of course).
• Some people I know use their best judgment based on their knowledge of the candy. If Tootsie Rolls have always been safe to eat they will eat them. I am not endorsing that you should do this just mentioning that I know it has been done.
Birthday Parties and Goodie Bags
Dealing with food allergies at a birthday party can be overwhelming especially if you do not know the family hosting it very well or if they are not cooperative. You need to worry about the food served at the party, the cake, and the goody bags. I have found, however, that if you are patient, diligent and polite you will get all of the information you need.
If the birthday party is in someone’s house, ask them what they are serving as if you were going there for dinner. I usually try to touch base with them a week ahead of time so if I need to call or research any food products I have time to do so.
If the party is being held somewhere else like a gym, crafts place, sports place etc. you might need to call the party place directly because a lot of these party places do not allow the hosts to bring their own food. If so you need to call the place the party is being held and grill them about where the food comes from. Then call the place the food comes from and ask your questions about what is in the food and what is in the kitchen that could potentially cross-contaminate your food.
Birthday party goody bags are very similar to Halloween. If there is food in normal packages with nutritional information use the same methods as you would if you were buying it yourself in the store. If the candy is small individually wrapped pieces with no nutritional information then use the same guidelines for Halloween candy above. Hopefully you know the people throwing the party and can check out the bag the candy came in or find what they are giving beforehand.
Birthday cake is a pretty easy one to navigate. Did the person throwing the party make the cake or other desserts themselves? Did they use a box mix, pre-packaged frosting or decorations? If so just use the same techniques that you would in dealing with any other pre-packaged food. Look it up here or call the company yourself. Did they make it from scratch? If so they will know what is in it. Reminder for those allergic to nuts you also need to check the chocolate used in any baked goods. A lot of chocolate companies make things with nuts, which can cross-contaminate the chocolate. Don’t just assume because it was made from scratch that the chocolate itself is a safe ingredient.
If the cake was made at a bakery then call the bakery and ask them about the ingredients, how and where they prepare the food and potential cross-contamination possibilities. One other thing to keep in mind when dealing with food allergic people cross-contamination can happen with cooking utensils, bowls, pots, pans etc. So if someone else is making the cake or it is being bought in a bakery the risk is not only what is in the food but how it is made.