The food allergy bees in my bonnet

If you can’t trust the NHS, who can you trust…

My daughter recently passed a peanut challenge. I should have left the hospital happy and relieved that, rather than following in her big brother’s footsteps, she had escaped the shadow of life threatening food allergy. And happy and relieved was how I felt, in the main. Yet there was also something bugging me: I had been required to sign a disclaimer that the hospital food might contain nut traces.

On one hand, the hospital were saying the same as any restaurant would say: there are nuts in the kitchen and therefore we can’t “guarantee” our meals are 100% nut free. However, restaurants don’t ask you to sign a document. When eating out, there’s also usually the scope to chat through with the chef or manager what they would do to minimise the cross-contamination risk. If you don’t like what you hear, you can take your business elsewhere.

If my son has an allergic reaction resulting in a hospital stay, would I be happy for him to eat food that I had acknowledged may contain nut traces? No. He would be fine eating the hospital’s sealed juices, jellies and ice cream (and such like), which are prepacked and bear an ingredients list. However, we would have to bring in safe food for his “main courses” from home. Having your child in hospital is a stressful and draining enough time, without the additional burden of co-ordinating going home for food supplies.

What if a food allergic adult was admitted to hospital (for whatever reason, allergy related or not) and didn’t have a supportive family or friends who could bring in safe food? Would they be faced with a choice of risky food versus no food?

And shouldn’t a hospital, of all places, understand the need to feed a severely allergic child food that is free of their allergens?

I sensed a new allergy induced headache coming on…

Conflicting food labels and customer service information

Then the other Saturday, I read a Tweet from Waitrose about its Woodland Friends Easter egg hunt box, advising it wasn’t nut free. What? But there were no nuts in the ingredients … there was no “may contain nuts” warning on the pack … and hadn’t a fellow nut mum told me they were on the Waitrose list of foods suitable for those avoiding nuts? Hackles immediately up, I joined in the thread. It transpired that the Tweet had been wrong and Waitrose confirmed they WERE nut free.

Although this turned out to be a false alarm, it highlighted the importance for allergic customers of a company’s food labelling and website (or customer service channels) telling the same story.

These two incidents got me thinking about the various food allergy bees in my bonnet. Whilst I’m not by nature the militant, campaigning type, there seems to be an ever increasing list of wrongs to right in the world of nut allergy. What’s fuelling this indignation on my part? Some might say it stems from a sense of injustice that my child has a life threatening food allergy. I think there’s more to it than that. To me, it’s more about:

  • Seeing policies and customs which could (at worst) endanger my child’s health or (at best) exclude him in some way, and
  • Realising that the issues could could easily be remedied, but aren’t, because they benefit someone’s commercial interests or form part of an institution’s system.

In addition to safe hospital food and consistent allergy information, here are the other items on my nut mum manifesto:

An end to back covering may contain labels

This one hardly needs any introduction. May contain labels serve a useful purpose IF used genuinely to flag a potential risk of cross contamination during the manufacturing process. They are not helpful if used simply as a back covering measure, either where the risk is incredibly remote or where they are slapped on to every product indiscriminately.

At the end of last year, Alpro began adding “may contain traces of almonds and hazelnuts” to all of its soya products, despite planning apparently exemplary allergen controls. Tesco have now added “also, may contain nuts” to seemingly every own brand product, even including items such as orange juice, ham and prepared vegetables (sign the Petition here).

Defensive nut warning labels undermine the legitimate warnings. And if we get to the point of may contain saturation, where almost every product carries a nut warning, food shopping with confidence for your allergic child will become impossible.

Take a stand on nut allergy discrimination

In Wheeldon v Marstons, an employment tribunal, at a preliminary hearing, held that a chef’s severe allergy to nuts was a “disability” under the Equality Act 2010. It seems only a matter of time before this principle is confirmed by a higher court. Then, going forward, whether it be:

  • A restaurant refusing to make a single nut safe dish.
  • A nightclub banning EpiPens.
  • A party venue refusing to cater for an allergic child’s birthday.
  • A nursery refusing an allergic child a place.
  • A school excluding allergic children from school dinners.

… the spotlight needs to be shone on incidences of nut allergy discrimination and those found responsible held to account.

Introduce unassigned EpiPens in schools

In the US, an estimated 20-25% percent of children with peanut or nut allergies have their first reaction at school before they’ve been diagnosed. If my daughter suffered anaphylaxis, even with my express permission, the nursery or school would not treat her with one of my son’s EpiPens. They would have to call 999 and hope the paramedics arrive in time.

The US has the School Access to Emergency Epinephrine Act. Caroline Sloan has launched a campaign for EpiPens to be more widely available in Ireland following the death of her 14-year-old daughter Emma in December 2013 (sign the Emma’s Voice Petition here).

Isn’t it about time the UK followed suit?

GPs and health visitors to warn new parents of the peanut allergy risk

Given a child has a higher peanut allergy risk if they (or an immediate family member) have a food allergy or other allergic condition (such as hayfever, asthma or eczema), why don’t GPs and health visitors warn of the the associated (potentially life threatening) peanut allergy risk when prescribing blue inhalers and eczema creams to babies?

It seems that GPs are prompted by their computer at nearly every appointment to ask how many units of alcohol you consume in a week (love to know the stats on how many women say “erm, 10”, but I digress…). If the system can give this prompt, why not a “peanut allergy warning” prompt when issuing asthma and eczema medications to infants?

Are there any more?

So these are the food allergy bees in my bonnet. Do they tally with yours? Or are there more injustices out there which I’ve not yet encountered in the nut allergy world?

2 comments

  1. My bee is the inclusion of peanuts in the word “nuts” when peanuts are not nuts and my son is not allergic to nuts.

    I had never considered the problem of eating in a hospital until I went to get my lunch in the hospital where I work, and saw a “all food may contain allergens” note. The one place you think you would be safe.

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