This year’s annual National Food Safety Month spotlights the increasing importance of food allergen awareness throughout the month of September. Food allergies are on the rise, already affecting more than 15 million Americans.
A food allergy is an immune system response to a protein in a specific food that the body believes is harmful. Common symptoms include swelling of the lips, tongue and throat, hives, difficulty breathing, stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea. Reactions can range from mild to life-threatening. A food intolerance doesn’t involve the immune system. Instead, the body lacks a mechanism or an enzyme to digest a food as in the case of a lactose intolerance or celiac disease.
While more than 160 food items can cause allergic reactions, just 8 of those accounts for 90 percent of all reactions. These 8 foods are known as the “Big 8”—eggs, milk, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts such as almonds, pecans and walnuts, shellfish(shrimp, crab, lobster, etc.) and fin fish including halibut, salmon and tuna .
There is no cure for food allergies; avoidance is the only way to prevent an allergic reaction. Avoidance measures include reading food labels for allergenic ingredients, asking questions about meal ingredients when eating outside of the home, and adopting food handling behaviors that prevent cross contact with allergens.
Cross-contact is the transfer of an allergen from a food containing the allergen to a food that does not contain the allergen. Here are some procedures that should be followed to prevent that any dish is contaminated with ingredients from other dishes:
- Check ingredient labels on food packages for allergens every time – food products may change. The food labeling law requires food manufacturers to disclose in plain language whether products contain any of the top eight food allergens.
- Hands should be washed before preparation of the meal, and clean aprons and kitchen towels used.
- Prevent cross contact between allergen-containing and allergen-free foods.Keep even a trace amount, part, or product of an allergenic food (e.g., peanut, peanut butter, peanut oil) from coming in contact with an allergen-free food or surface (e.g., counter, bowl, spoon).
- Cross contact measures are not the same as cross contamination measures used to prevent foodborne illness. Many foodborne illnesses can be prevented by cooking foods thoroughly, but cooking a food containing an allergen will not make the food safe to eat by someone allergic to it.
- Do not share any utensils. All preparation areas and counters, utensils, chopping boards, knives and other cutlery, blenders, food processors, containers, trays, pans, bowls, dishes, and grills should be carefully cleaned with hot, soapy water before being used to prepare food.
- Do not use oils that have been used to cook or fry other foods.
- Do not place the dish in the same oven, tray or grill or next to other dishes containing the allergen.
- Wipe up spills and splatter while cooking.
- Allergen-free foods should be prepared first. If possible, keep separate areas for the preparation of allergen-free dishes.
- Wrap food to prevent contamination from other dishes. Keep the safe meal separate from other dishes before serving it.
- Be in control of the eating situation. Keep kids from trading meals and snacks. Confine food to eating areas.
The steps above will help prevent a food allergy from being triggered. Unfortunately, accidents do happen. And sometimes a reaction occurs in someone who had not previously experienced a reaction; therefore, know what to do in an emergency.
Learn the symptoms: tingling sensation, itching, or metallic taste in the mouth; hives; a sensation of warmth; asthma symptoms; swelling of the mouth and throat area; difficulty breathing; vomiting; diarrhea; intestinal cramping; drop in blood pressure; and/or loss of consciousness.
If someone reports feeling sick after eating, take him or her seriously, and act quickly, as even tiny and invisible traces of the food can be very harmful or cause a severe and potentially fatal allergic reaction. Call 911 or your local emergency service.
The University of Wyoming and the United States Department of Agriculture cooperate.
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