How to Avoid Cross-Contamination with Food Allergies

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Ice Cream parlors can be a cross-contamination risk.. Raphye Alexius/Getty Images

Cross-contamination is a big concern for individuals with food allergies. Cross-contamination happens when a food allergen contaminates a food that is free of allergens. For example, during food preparation in the kitchen, bread crumbs may be left behind in a toaster, which may contaminate a wheat-free slice of toast. Or, in a manufacturing facility, food products made with tree nuts can contaminate the processing of other foods made on the same manufacturing line.

Cross-contamination may happen during food preparation, cooking, storage, or serving. It can occur at home, in restaurants, at school or on manufacturing lines.

For some individuals with food allergies, even the tiniest bit of allergen can trigger an allergic reaction. The following details will help safeguard your food from cross-contamination and reduce your risk of allergic reaction.

In packaged foods:

Many manufacturers voluntarily disclose that a food product may have been contaminated through processing, though they are not required to do so. Statements like “processed in a facility that also manufactures wheat” or similar disclosures will give you the heads up on the presence of some of the most common food allergens. Confirm this by reading the ingredients label.

Some packaged foods will not include cross-contamination information, or there will be an ambiguous statement like "we use good manufacturing practices" on the package.

In this instance, your best approach before consuming the product is to call or e-mail customer service for clarification, especially if you have severe allergies.

In the home:

The easiest way to prevent cross-contamination and an allergic reaction is to avoid purchasing and having food allergens in your home.

If you, or a family member, have a high risk of anaphylaxis, you should not keep food allergens in the home.

If you do keep allergens in the home, keep them far from food preparation and serving areas. Designate special food preparation areas, utensils, and clean all food surfaces before and after food preparation as soon as you're finished.

Remember, the riskiest foods for cross-contamination are foods that are messy, difficult to clean, or likely to leave crumbs, oil or other trace allergens on surfaces.

In restaurants:

The most common causes of cross-contamination in restaurants are frying oil, griddles or grills, and woks. The actual cooking of food poses more risk in a restaurant than a cutting board or prep area, although the risk is still there. Always be curious about how food is prepared and cooked. Double check with your server about fried foods; never eat anything fried in oil that has been used to cook a food to which you may be allergic.

If there is a mistake with your food order, return it, and specify the need for a new meal.

Removing the wrong item, like an egg or cheese, particularly if it is an allergen, is not acceptable, as the meal has been cross-contaminated with a food allergen.

Salad bars, ice cream parlors and buffet-style restaurants are a hot bed for potential cross-contamination. Spoons, scoops and serving tongs can be moved from one food (containing an allergen) to another (free from allergens), contaminating it. 

Other tips:

Wash knives, cutting boards, counter surfaces and spoons between uses; hot soapy water and thorough washing can help prevent an allergic reaction.

Plastic cutting boards are easier to clean and sanitize than wooden boards, as they can be cleaned in the dishwasher.

Nut and seeds may leave an oily residue, potentially leaving allergen behind on plates, counters, tables and cutting boards. Clean with a household cleaning agent thoroughly to prevent cross-contamination.

Don't share cups or eating utensils with others—these could be contaminated with allergens. Remember, some people will react to a food allergen with a simple touch of the hand, face or lips.

Bagel or meat slicers, if not cleaned thoroughly, may be contaminated with food allergens.

Bulk food bins may also be a source of cross-contamination as the sharing of scoops between items can potentially transfer allergens. Always ask the store manager if cross-contamination precautions have been taken.

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