Food Cross Contamination
Being severely allergic to a food, people assume that most settings are safe, and that moving through life being mindful of what I eat is my main focus! As it turns out, cross-contamination is a much larger and difficult problem to control. Being allergic to the dust and particles of my allergen is the scariest part for me. It’s invisible to the naked eye the particles, dust, and trace amounts are potentially e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e and spread extremely easily, and we have no way of knowing if they’re there.
Piggybacking off my earlier blog post on household pets and cross-contamination of peanuts, I’ve learned that not only homes and vehicles of friends and family with pets are contaminated, but the entire world is covered in peanut dust, and that isn’t even an exaggeration! There’s just no way to control minuscule amounts of particles and completely remove them from an area. It’s reasons like this that I appreciate the gesture that my local Baseball Stadium tries to accommodate those with peanut allergies by having a peanut-free day each year, but with being so allergic and reactive, I don’t feel comfortable taking the risk of attending when I know they serve peanuts every other day of the year!
Thinking about cross-contamination from a commercial kitchen or food manufacturing standpoint, if the allergens are present in the facility, they’re very likely to end up as trace amounts within the final product. Take a look at my photo of my Trader Joe’s salt below, I was shocked to see soy being a possibility! This is in no way a diss to Trader Joe’s, it’s great that they label and are aware of allergens, in fact they have a Trader Joe’s phone line I rely on heavily and am so grateful for (phone number attached below), but it is surprising to see various products made or packaged on shared equipment.
Calling 626-599-3817 will get you through to a Trader Joe’s representative who can tell you what allergens are in the facility and on shared lines with any Trader Joe’s brand product. You’ll just need the barcode!
I’ve even seen a bag of kiwis at Kroger labeled “may contain peanuts”. I assumed they were bagged on shared equipment, and it’s good to disclose so people can avoid if they’re highly allergic or be sure to wash them extra well– whatever your comfort level is.
I understand the risk of my actions when I am dining out, but I will occasionally eat at restaurants like Olive Garden, Chipotle, and Taco Bell, where they have the top allergens listed online, and I can verify that there aren’t at least peanut products on the menu and used in the kitchen. Having this information online is much appreciated so that I know the chances are somewhat less, potentially. I will also eat at non-chain restaurants in our area after emailing with them about what is in their kitchen, asking if they use peanut ingredients such as peanut oil, peanut butter, and so on, but I do try to limit my going out to restaurants overall. Even places that don’t use peanuts, it is still a risk for me to eat there for many reasons, here are 3 common ways cross contamination could still occur and cause a life-threatening reaction:
- An employee working could be eating something with my allergen and handling the food, contaminating surfaces, silverware, my napkin, etc. I’ve seen employees out on smoke breaks smoking and snacking, so it isn’t unlikely.
- More likely, the individual ingredients the restaurant is using could be made or packaged on shared equipment as peanuts without them even knowing, so asking them if THEY use peanuts in the restaurant isn’t guaranteeing that peanuts aren’t in the facility where the individual ingredients are coming from such as salsa, tortillas, pasta, cheese, flour, etc.
- Someone sitting at my table in the restaurant before me could be covered in peanut dust/particles and contaminate my table/chair, if I touch the table then my face, it could be enough to ignite a reaction.
Cross-contamination can come from a million various situations. In kitchens, both in-home or inside a restaurant, it can come from dishes with peanut residue on them contaminating all the other plates/utensils, the preparation of food in the same areas, or shared pans and ovens! The particles can get on hands, cabinet doors, in the pantry on items, literally anywhere you touch or go.
For example, once I was at Qdoba, this was back before they put up signs saying, “everything here may contain common allergens like peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, milk, and so on” — eat at your own risk, basically. While there I saw a customer eating a snickers bar inside at a table. Another time I saw someone eating Qdoba while their child was playing with their peanut m&ms out on the outside tables. This could very well have been the same table I later go to sit at, or person I’m next to, causing me to have an airborne reaction. Every day I see at least one situation that could put me in danger, just from me touching something or being around a contaminated area.
To give a work-related example, which I also cover in my post on peanuts at the workplace, I know a few people who eat their peanut products outside, because they aren’t allowed to have them on my floor. I greatly appreciate that, because it does limit dust in the break room, bathroom, and common areas, and then there’s the whole airborne aspect as well. Although, twice now, I’ve seen someone eating a small bag of peanuts outside in a common area in front of my building, then open the front entrance door handle, press the ‘up’ elevator button, and use the door handle to get into my floor. The last time I witnessed this, I waited 5 minutes, then followed cautiously trying to hold my breath as much as possible, and immediately went and washed my hands. There’s no getting around particles traveling from hand-to-object (aka cross-contamination), and it’s just a part of life I have to be cautious of.
Lastly, I’ll share a story about a peanut reaction I had in college while giving my — super important — final senior presentation. At my college they kept the rooms I was in peanut-less, but the entire campus was not peanut-free. I was sitting in a room with 4 other students, presenting to two professors, and the stakes were high. Suddenly I started to feel my face get really hot and my lip itchy and swollen. I had already presented, thankfully, and was sitting in one of the leather office chairs sitting around an oval table. I’m sure earlier before presenting I was going over my presentation in my head and touching my face nervously. I looked down in the back of my seat to check my surroundings and try to reassure myself it was probably nothing, and it looked as if someone had eaten peanuts in my chair! There were a few actual whole peanut pieces around the back seat crease.
In shock, I hesitantly interrupted the other student presenting, to let them know I needed to leave immediately because of my chair! They were equally as shocked and horrified. It was absolutely not intentional, I was a part of the discussion when we randomly chose the office, and I even chose my own seat. It was a complete fluke, and something I now am on the lookout for in shared spaces!
I’ve been inside a friend’s car before who warned me they’ve eaten peanut products in them recently, potentially wiping their hands on the seat or shared spaces as the passenger’s side. This is good for me to know, so I don’t touch my face, and know to shower once home and put my clothes directly into the laundry. My friend Laura once lost a peanut in her car for over a week, and she would not let me in it until she found it! All this to say, I appreciate being in-the-know about anything peanut-related you’ve eaten if it may impact me, because cross-contamination is not to be handled lightly and can be as serious as ingesting the allergen.
In general, everyday, life is peanut-y. You’d never notice unless you needed to, or until it’s brought to your attention. For now, that’s all for my hopefully informative rant on daily encounters with cross-contamination! Like I’ve said before, this is a subject I will touch on likely in each blog post, since it’s such a huge part of having a severe and airborne allergy. Update: Since writing this post, I’ve touched on it in my blog posts like dirty money, peanuts & movie theaters, and food allergy recalls, just to name a few.
I’ll leave you with one eye-opening statistic I learned recently! Each peanut kernel contains about 300mg of peanut protein, and research has found it has taken only 1mg to put someone into deadly anaphylaxis. Meaning, each peanut contains 300x the amount of the allergen known to have sent someone into a life-threatening reaction. I go into more detail about this in my free PDF linked at the bottom of my post on food allergies and cross contamination 101.
Please let me know if you ever have questions! I look forward to writing again soon!