Allergy Nation: Lies And Triggers Will Make Us Paranoid

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When an allergist confirmed that my son is allergic to fish and seafood, my heart sank. Although it didn’t come as a complete shock (we had gone for allergy testing, after all), I had been hoping that the reason my son had been getting hives and vomiting when exposed to fish had to do with my mediocre cooking as opposed to what is likely to be a lifelong, potentially life-threatening allergy.

The allergist gave us a prescription for two EpiPens, told us to be careful as this kind of allergy can turn into anaphylaxis at any time, and sent us on our way. It was very comforting (in the same way that being chased by a hooded stranger in a dark alley is comforting).

A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that food allergies affect about one in 13 U.S. children, around 38 percent of whom have severe reactions. The study, which showed numbers higher than previously thought, was funded by the Food Allergy Initiative, a non-profit advocacy group that helps raise awareness and paint a more comprehensive picture of food allergies.

Though I’m not sure that awareness is the real issue here. People are aware that food allergies are prevalent and are always willing to make concessions for the protection of our allergic children – unless it’s inconvenient. Because everyone knows that it’s terrible when a little kid gets sent home from daycare or summer camp or school with a rash or closed up throat, but it’s even more terrible when parents are forced to spend the extra time reading labels or sending a different kind of sandwich, or when daycare workers are forced to rearrange lunch menus or read that teeny tiny print on granola bar wrappers. I mean, who has time for that, really?

The truth of the matter is that there are schools and daycares and camps and parents who do their best to accommodate allergic children. But it’s still up to the parents of the allergic child to find those people and places. And. even then, there is reason worry.

Take the now-defunct Whole Green Kids, which operated for three years and served more than one million meals at 75 schools and daycares in Toronto and Ottawa. The catering company, which promised homemade, organic, healthy meals and snacks, was recently found to have been passing off no-name foods purchased at discount grocers as premium, organic, halal and kosher. Among other things, former employees reported that perishable items, including meat, were regularly driven to Ottawa from Toronto without refrigeration, milk was left overnight in car trunks, and that undercooked chicken (chicken!) had been rushed off the grill to meet delivery deadlines.

As terrible as this is, allergic kids were even more at risk. Once the company’s nutritionist quit – she had been responsible for ensuring that kids with allergies were not given unsafe foods – the owner-operator gave the job to an 18-year-old prep chef whose previous job was as a cashier at a grocery store.

The most shocking part about this story is the fact that this scam was so easy to pull off. No one expects food providers to lie about their products or to be so reckless with our children’s health and safety. The company claimed to provide everything that most of us are looking for in our children’s lunches and snacks: food that is healthy, organic and homemade.

However, just as it’s up to us as parents to inquire about allergy policies and then to make surprise drop-in visits to ensure that these policies are actually being adhered to, the daycares and schools and summer camps have some responsibility, as well. I believe that it’s up to them to look at what snacks the kids are bringing from home and to ensure that everyone washes their hands before and after they eat.

More important, daycares need to thoroughly research catering companies (including talking to their food suppliers and making a surprise visit to their kitchens) before giving them a contract. Also, and this might only seem obvious in retrospect, they might want to a think twice about any company offering a homemade, hot, organic meal and two snacks for a mere $3.70 per child.