May contain traces of nuts…

During my late teens, I developed a life-threatening allergic reaction to various nuts. {Pause} The pause is while I wait for you to bring out the “funny” jokes I’ve heard a million times before (most common variant: “You must be allergic to yourself then!”). I have had anaphylactic reactions to nuts a few times, requiring instant hospitalisation. I carry an Epipen at all times.

I have been inspired by this post at Robert Ambrogi’s Lawsites to embark upon my own rant about food allergies. It seems like the US has similar issues to here. One thing I really hate is the disclaimer “May contain traces of nuts”. I am allergic to tree nuts (hazelnuts, pine nuts, chestnuts etc). I am not allergic to peanuts. For the record, peanuts are not a nut, they are a legume (if you don’t believe me, how can you disbelieve Wiki?).

The warning “may contain traces of nuts” is useless. Does the product contain nuts? What kind of nuts does it contain? Does it contain peanuts? Or tree nuts? I do wish people would be specific. It can mean the difference between life and death to me. If I avoided all products with a “may contain traces of nuts” label, there would be hundreds of products I couldn’t eat. Fortunately, I know that I can eat most brands of food even where there is a warning. I have never had a problem with food labeled “may contain traces of nuts” yet. That being said, I stick to brands which I know are safe. My theory is that either:
(a) the “nuts” in point are peanuts to which I am not allergic; or
(b) the label is just a lawyer’s trick to cover companies on the 0.01% off chance that a hazelnut fragment falls into the vanilla ice cream mix.

The other thing which really irritates me is when people say, “I’m allergic to dairy” or something like that…but what they mean is that they have a minor intolerance to dairy (it makes them feel slightly nauseous). When I say I’m allergic to nuts, I don’t mean that I don’t like nuts, or that they give me gas, or that I like to be difficult and have a severe case of hypochondria. I mean that I might die or be hospitalised. A friend of mine suffers from coeliac’s disease, and he has similar problems. His small intestine has been severely damaged by his body’s auto-immune response to gluten and lactose, and he has a very violent and painful reaction when he eats something with gluten in it.

The recent trend in people saying that they are “allergic” to certain foods means that sometimes, restaurants and waiters may not take food allergies seriously. I usually say: “I’m allergic to nuts. Let’s be clear about this. I may die if I eat nuts and I don’t inject myself with adrenalin in time. I can have a reaction even if nuts have merely touched something I eat, or if kitchen utensils which have come into contact with nuts have then come into contact with my food.” That usually sharpens up the attention of waiters.

I would like uniform food labeling laws. It is great when food labels list potentially allergenic ingredients in bold (including nuts, shellfish, peanuts, milk and wheat products). It is also great when labels say that a product has been made on machinery which may have also been used to process products with hazelnuts, for example. At least it’s specific, and I know I have to avoid that product.

I also think there is an untapped market out there for people with food allergies. I saw some chocolate which is apparently made on “nut free” machinery the other day – what a great idea! But it’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that. My coeliac friend has trouble getting gluten free and dairy free brands consistently; he found a great lactose-free cream a few months ago, but all of a sudden, it isn’t available any more. I would love to see more chocolate and cakes manufactured in “nut and peanut free” factories.

I would also like to see greater education and knowledge about food allergies, particularly with an emphasis on the fact that some food allergies are very serious and can be deadly.

I really hope that my daughter isn’t allergic to nuts too. There’s a fairly high chance that she might be, as my husband is also mildly allergic to nuts. The local creche at our swimming pool has a “no nuts” policy – children are not allowed to bring nuts or nut products to creche. People might think this is ridiculous, but from my perspective, it’s great. I don’t want my darling little girl to come into contact with something that might kill her. People who work in creches and schools should be trained to respond to children with food allergies. I gather there was a recent case in Australia where a kindergarten teacher didn’t know how to use the Epipen properly or how to respond, and injected herself instead of the child. The child died.

This is one of the reasons I think genetically modified food is not necessarily a bad thing. I wonder if they could genetically engineer foods without the proteins which cause allergic reactions? At the moment, I guess that’s pretty far fetched. As a lawyer and a person with food allergies, all I can hope for is clearer labeling laws, and insist on proper policies with respect to food allergies.

Update

A reader has pointed out this recent tragic incident, in which a Melbourne schoolboy has died after ingesting peanuts at a school camp.

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15 Comments

Filed under allergies, law reform, nuts

15 responses to “May contain traces of nuts…

  1. Anonymous

    Excellent writing, especially from a parent who ‘gets it’.

    I read Mr. Ambrogi’s blog, which brought me here.

    I’d welcome you to http://www.kidswithfoodallergies.org as Mr. Ambrogi had also mentioned.

    If nothing else, it’s other parents who ‘get it’, and given your genetics (and your husband’s), I don’t WANT to see you on our website, but if you need us, at some point, we are there. :)

    Jason Tolpin

  2. Law Student

    “I really hope that my daughter isn’t allergic to nuts too”

    It’s not in the gene’s, is it?

  3. Legal Eagle

    Unfortunately, I think it is in the genes to an extent, although environmental factors also play a part. My sister also has a reasonably mild nut allergy. But I’m hoping that my daughter manages to avoid it.

  4. Griselde

    So…. Is your husband allergic to nuts, or does he just have a minor intolerance?

    I’m not trying to mock you here, just pointing out how hard it can be to escape conventions regarding allergies.

  5. Legal Eagle

    Technically speaking, both my husband and I have food allergies because our bodies both produce an immunological response when we eat nuts. He just gets itching and swelling of his mouth and lips, I get the full anaphylactic reaction. So it is true to say that food allergies can vary in severity, and obviously, his condition is not life threatening. However, I encourage my husband to stay away from nuts, because when I was a child, my reaction was similar to his, but with each repeated exposure to nuts, my reaction increased exponentially. My understanding is that even if a person has a mild allergic reaction to a food, they should be careful not to expose themselves to that food too much.

    Food intolerance is something different – it can be very uncomfortable, but not usually life threatening. It means that the body does not produce enough of an enzyme to digest a particular protein or sugar (for example, lactose).

    Coeliac’s disease is something else again. Technically, it’s an intolerance, but the immune system is involved as well. The auto-immune system attacks the villi in the small intestine when a sufferer eats gluten, meaning that the villi are broken down and can no longer adequately absorb nutrients and water from food. If a coeliac does not stop eating gluten, they will not be able to absorb all the nutrients they need to survive. My friend had to be hospitalised and was extremely unwell until they found out what the problem was.

  6. Mamasita

    FYI…You don’t inherit specific food allergies. Parents with allergies have children that are more likely to have food allergies, pet allergies, environmental allergies, asthma, and/or eczema. Or not be affected at all.
    For example, a parent with asthma can have a child with food allergies but no asthma. It’s a roll of the dice :)
    Good Luck!

  7. cherry ripe

    For the record, my husband has Crohn’s disease and asthma. His sister still has croup, and sinusitis, and his mother has severe sinusitis and hay fever. All auto-immune, but all different.

    My father and his grandfather and his grandfather all had severe asthma, but the generations in between had nothing! So I have been very conscious in parenting to try to prevent problems in my own child (children actually – another is on the way), so I did a bit of research.

    Autoimmune disorders (allergies, intolerances and other autoimmune syndromes) are rapidly rising in the Western world, especially in the UK, USA and Australia.

    One thing seems to come up over and again: children growing up with healthy exposure to bacteria have more balanced immune systems and less autoimmune disorders.

    For example, women who have had one child with severe allergies are advised to eat lots of yoghurt during pregnancy. And children who eat natural yoghurt from early solids stages also have more balanced immune systems.

    One study showed that children with pets have lower rates of autoimmune disorders. Another showed that children in households which used common cleaning products (mostly chlorine-based) had higher rates of such disorders.

    My little one has so far had no problems at all. We plonked her in the veggie garden to crawl around when we were out in it from the age of 6 months, and when she was 1, we got a dog. All’s well so far.

    Maybe this is food for thought (excuse the pun) for you, Legal Eagle? Chuck away the pine-o-cleen! Liberate the germs! Revive the good reputation of good old-fashioned dirt! And do your cleaning with water, soap, good cloths and vinegar.

    But at the same time, some conditions will happen anyway, and I wouldn’t want to blame any parents who have to deal with that. I consider myself lucky not to be one of those, although I may be caring for a very sick partner some day.

  8. Ruth

    Very interesting post. Indeed there are genetically modified crops that are under development to be less allergenic. They’ve made good progress on apples and soybean, for example, and peanuts are also under study.

  9. Blathering Idiot

    I appreciate the frankness on food allergies. I disagree with those that say it is not in the genes; there is an allergy that has been passed down from generation to generation in my family. We are all very allergic to fish, shellfish, and anything from the water. This is not an intolerance, it is a true, life threatening allergy. All tests, all doctors, all the experts who have been baffled (because it is not common to be so allergic to all from the water) all attribute it to genetics.

    I had to laugh at the “waiter statement”. My version is “You will kill me if you serve me anything from the water, if its juices have touched my plate, if it is cooked in the same pan or fried in the same oil…” It certainly makes them take it more seriously. Much better than being told “Oh it doesn’t contain fish…just shrimp.” as happened after a particularly nasty episode at one restaurant.

    People who have never felt their throat close up as the result of eating something that has been mis-represented are lucky. (Think of Caesar salad dressing not listing the anchovies.) Those of us who have “get it” and understand the need for truly accurate labeling.

  10. Legal Eagle

    Seems there are a lot of other allergy sufferers out there! Sorry to hear that others have suffered the same problems with waiters and restaurants that I have, but it doesn’t surprise me.

    I think the variety of food allergies is quite broad. I actually know someone with a moderately severe allergy to seafood which is not fresh. He is fine with fresh seafood, which baffles doctors. My sister is very allergic to pineapple, sultanas and grapes, I am severely allergic to lychees and my husband is allergic to kiwi fruit. Who knows why? People look at me like I’m mad when I say I can’t eat lychees. Fortunately, it’s not one which troubles me often (except in Chinese restaurants).

    I hope that my allergies are not inherited, although my allergist said it’s unlikely my poor girl will not be allergic to something.

    Fortunately, my poor family do not live in a pristine environment, so my daughter is apparently onto a winner there. Hum, as my post on messy desks indicates, even if I wanted to create a pristine environment for my child, I would have great difficulty maintaining it. I’m a MESSER!

    My daughter has had regular exposure to dogs (my parents’ and my sister’s dogs), which she loves. She also frequently gets out in the garden and covers herself in mud and sticks.

    I ate yoghurt during pregnancy, and my daughter now loves it. In fact she just sang the “yoghurt song” to me, which goes “yoggi, yoggi, yoggi” or occasionally “gi-yog, gi-yog, gi-yog”.

    But even if you do all these things, there’s still a risk of getting allergies. For example, my husband was breastfed until he was one year old, but has a number of food allergies whereas his brothers were not and have absolutely no allergies at all.

    I wonder if there are other factors? My asthma specialist said he had a disproportionate number of patients displaying a particular phenotype (reddish hair, green-blue eyes and freckles). Until my pregnancy (after which my hair went dark) I fulfilled all those criteria, and my husband is even more of a ginger kid than I am. Of course, our little girl has hair like a new-minted copper coin and green eyes. No freckles yet, but I’m sure they’re coming.

    Who else is a ginger kid out there? I’m sure there’s a PhD thesis in there, but I have my hands full with a law PhD already…

  11. David

    My take is family history does have an impact as to whether your child will have a food allergy. You need to look no further than the high instances of families with more than 1 child who is food allergic.

  12. -k.

    Very timely, LE, particularly given the tragic death of a Scotch College student recently.

    When I worked in an after-school programme, we had two children who were allergic to peanuts. As a result, it was policy to never serve nut products (eg peanut butter sandwiches, certain biscuits, etc) for afternoon tea. Sure, it meant we had to carefully vet what we served but I’d rather that than informing a parent that their child was en route to the Childrens’ in an ambulance.

  13. Pingback: Nuts and kinders « The Legal Soapbox

  14. Luke Savage

    I am really sorry for those who have nut allergies. I could imagine the fear you must feel. However, your emergency is not my problem. It is nice to be aware of others who have nut allergies and to take precautions but to alter school policies and waste time during class from teaching core material is irresponsible. My daughter’s class has wasted much time talking about this when it really doesn’t help academics.

    The choice for people who have nut allergies to mingle with the general public is a personal choice. Your altered life style should not be imposed on the general public. The fact is that many foods have nuts. Do you require grocery stores to not sell nuts? If you asked them to take it off the shelf, they would laugh at you. Do you stay home, order groceries online, and wash every bag that you touch?

    If my daughter had nut allergies, as an educated and responsible parent I would either home school or equip her with knowledge and tools to function throughout the day. Also, I would let each teacher know about the illness and educate the school on my precautionary/emergency plans. It is not the responsibility for schools to shelter and parent your child. Their job is to teach and provide the best possible teaching environment. Even with this requirement, we are way behind. Special interest groups like this slows down the progress of education. Imposing other policies only wastes time and money, which schools don’t have. It is about time for parent’s to take responsibility and train their children with nut allergies on how to cope with life. Don’t pass down responsibility to others just because you have an inability to parent and take responsibility of your child. Stop being a special interest group and deal with life’s curves like everyone else.

    With that said, I hope that your active in the research and development of a cure for nut allergies. I strongly encourage you to invest your time in lobbying for appropriations to gene therapeutic research.

    Please don’t take this to be cold-hearted. I really am concerned but I’m more concerned about distractions at schools. Too many teacher inservice days, too many social feel good events, and too much distraction from the lack of discipline creates for a poor learning environment.

  15. Kim

    I don’t think the whole “I’m allergic to dairy” is quite accurate. Even though you’re allergic to nuts my 16 month old is allergic to dairy-Deathly allergic. Dairy can be just as deadly even more so than nuts depending on the tolerance level. I mean the only reason why I’m even up right now is because we were just discharged from the hospital and she’s asleep, but the whole vision of her thick little fingers holding her neck trying to catch air, just makes it entirely too difficult to fall asleep.

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