Reduce Cross-Contamination With These Food Allergy Safety Tips

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

Simply stated people with food allergies are told to avoid eating the foods that they are allergic too.  By taking it out of their diet, they should be free of symptoms and feel great.  However, it is not as easy as that sounds.  For many people despite their best efforts, there is yet an additional concern, that of cross-contamination. 

Cross-contamination occurs when a food allergen contaminates a food that is free of allergens.

For example, during food preparation in the kitchen, bread crumbs from a regular slice of toast may be left behind in a toaster. These crumbs by virtue of remaining in the toaster may then contaminate a wheat-free slice of toast, causing an allergic reaction for someone with a gluten allergy.  Or, in a manufacturing facility, food products made with tree nuts can contaminate the processing of other foods made on the same manufacturing line.  For this reason, products are required to include a warning if their facility also manufacturers foods that include one of the top food allergens on the same processing equipment.  Cross-contamination can occur almost anywhere, at home, in restaurants, at school or on manufacturing lines.  

Cross-contamination can happen during food preparation, cooking, storage, or even when serving.  All it may take is gluten-free pasta cooked in the same pot that was used for regular pasta, eating a salad after a piece of cheese is removed from the top or a knife not properly cleaned from the peanut butter jar.

  For a person with food allergies these situations can lead to life threatening reactions. To help safeguard your food, follow these guidelines to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction.

In Packaged Foods

Be sure to read the labels of foods that you purchase so that you are aware of not only the allergen ingredients but the manufacturing details as well.

  Look for statements like “processed in a facility that also manufactures wheat” or similar disclosures that will give you the heads up on the presence of nuts or some of the other most common food allergens.  If you are not sure about the information or do not see it on the label, it is always best to contact the company and ask about your concerns over safe practices. 

In The Home

In most households where family members with food allergies have a high risk of anaphylaxis, they avoid bringing foods with those allergens into the house.  This is the safest way to avoid cross contamination. If the house is clear of these foods, all family members can live in a safer allergy free environment. 

If you do however keep foods with these allergens in the home, keep them far from food preparation and serving areas.  Everyone should be aware of where to keep these items, and everything should be labeled appropriately. Keep in mind that baby sitters, grandparents or friends need to be able to recognize the dangers of the foods should they be in charge of the food or dining at your house.

  Designate special food preparation areas, utensils, and clean all food surfaces before and after food preparation.  These foods should also only be eaten in certain areas of the kitchen, so that any residue does not wind up in other areas of the home. 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.  Being aware of possible risks is important for the safety of the person with food allergies. 

In Restaurants

When choosing a restaurant it is important to determine if they are familiar with food allergies and have an established protocol for food safety.  Speaking to a manager to be sure they understand your needs is most important for those with food allergies.  

Despite their efforts, cross-contamination can still occur if all safe practices are not upheld.  The most common causes of cross-contamination in restaurants are often related to the frying oil, griddles or grills, and woks.  The actual cooking of food poses more risk in a restaurant than in typical prep areas, as those areas are usually more closely monitored and understood.  Don’t be afraid to double check with your server about food preparation to be safe.  Keep in mind that it is important to recognize that fried foods are often a source of cross-contamination, as cooking it in the same oil can lead to an allergic reaction. 

If there is a mistake with your food order that requires you send it back, be sure the server understands you need a brand new meal.  Removing the wrong item, like an egg or a piece of cheese that may have touched the rest of the meal, particularly if it is an allergen, is not acceptable, as the meal has been cross-contaminated.  

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

It is very important that knives, cutting boards, counter surfaces and spoons are washed thoroughly between uses with hot soapy water.  Plastic cutting boards provide a safer option as they are easier to clean and sanitize, than wooden boards, as they can also be cleaned in the dishwasher.

Be particularly careful about nuts and seeds, as they may leave an oily residue, potentially leaving allergens behind on plates, counters, tables and cutting boards. Clean with a household cleaning agent thoroughly to prevent cross-contamination.

Refrain from sharing cups or eating utensils with others, as they can easily be contaminated with allergens.  For some people all it takes is a simple touch of the hand, face or lips to evoke an allergic reaction. 

Bagel or meat slicers, if not cleaned thoroughly, may be contaminated with food allergens.  Be sure to advise at the counter that you have a food allergy and ask for them to change their gloves and to clean the machines before slicing. 

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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