A recent survey from the Food Standards Agency and charity Allergy UK showed that a quarter of diners with a food allergy say they suffer a reaction after eating out. Meanwhile, nearly one in five of those allergic reactions resulted in a hospital visit.
For anyone with an allergy – something which affects one in three Scots, higher than elsewhere in the UK – eating out is an absolute minefield, a time when the diner has to put their utmost trust in the person who is serving them – and in everyone working behind the scenes in the kitchen.
Buying food from supermarkets is not much easier, unless you stick to entirely fresh, non-processed goods, which in theory, is utopic – and the epitome of the clean food revolution.
In reality, however, it must make life a little bit miserable. In doing so, you would have to avoid every birthday cake not baked at home; every biscuit, every pre-prepared food which makes things just that bit easier on a busy day. But better that than risking a serious allergic reaction for the sake of a bite of a chocolate treat.
Those with one of the major allergies are actually, in the big scheme of things, fairly lucky. They’re not really lucky, don’t get me wrong. It is hellish. But in terms of managing their food allergy, they at least have some support from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
For, if you are afflicted with an allergy to one of the top 14 food allergens, manufacturers selling their products in the UK – and elsewhere in Europe – have to put it on the packet and in a lot of cases, helpfully highlight the offending ingredient in bold.
The “top” allergies begin with cows’ milk, eggs, wheat, peanuts, nuts, fish and shellfish, which account for 90 per cent of UK food allergies, right down to celery, which is an allergen for a very small number of people in Britain, but is more prevalent in some other European countries including France, Germany and Switzerland.
Yet, if you’re not allergic to one of the top 14 – and there are hundreds of other foods which an albeit small number of people find they are allergic to – it is Russian roulette as to whether your particular poison features in a product or not.
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In the UK, about ten people die every year from food-induced anaphylaxis, yet more have what seems to be referred to on a lot of allergy websites as a “near miss”, which doesn’t sound very cheerful to me.
Until a few weeks ago, I knew nothing about allergies, save that a few of my daughter’s friends had them. If one boy comes round, we avoid anything containing egg. For another, it’s peanuts. I have always done everything I can to ensure they are not exposed, but had never had first hand experience of the problem. Then my daughter began to react to something. We weren’t sure what it was that was causing it, but her face would occasionally break out in a red rash shortly after eating.
After a few more fairly minor reactions, our GP terrified us with talk of potential escalation to full-blown anaphylaxis and decided it was worth getting her tested for various things which could have been potential allergens.
We had a couple of ideas of what she had eaten before an attack, so we cut those foods out of her diet while we waited to get tested.
This was when I realised the enormity of what having a child with an allergy could be.
One potential culprit was paprika, her having had her most severe reaction to a slice of chorizo. Simple: avoid chorizo, you might think. Devilled eggs, maybe. She’s not likely to be attending many 1980s-themed dinner parties.
No. Turns out this otherwise fairly innocuous spice is in everything: as a colouring and flavouring. It is also not as innocuous as you might think, having the potential, like any allergen, to cause full blown throat swelling – and potentially death.
An Orange Club biscuit on offer at my parents’ house? Paprika. A packet of Walkers Baked cheese and onion crisps offered to her by a friend last week? They also contain paprika. Toddler-marketed crispy snack Pom Bears – a favourite at every child’s birthday party? Check.
While avoiding these things was a pain, having to dig out empty packets from friends’ bins to check labels and make sure we had alternative, non-paprika-containing snacks on hand at every opportunity was worse It was the products which did not actually clearly state whether or not they contained the ingredient which made life most difficult.
Baked beans? Contains “spices”. Exactly which spices are not clear, but we had to avoid anyway in case one of them was paprika. Tomato ketchup? Same.
After a round of tests, it turns out that she’s not testing allergic to paprika and we’re still at a loss as to what caused the reaction, which is, thankfully at the moment, very mild. It could be a one-off, it might not. We have to wait and see.
But for the thousands of people with serious, life-long allergies, the lack of clarity is terrifying.
Is it beyond the wit of food manufacturers – or the authorities – to ensure that every single ingredient is listed in full on a packet? Surely not. It may cost slightly more, but it could save lives.