This is easily one of the greatest struggles when living with a food allergy. While it’s also a struggle with those who have a special diet or food intolerance, the consequences for the latter group is less lethal.
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First, we need to officially define cross-contact and cross-contamination. In the food safety world, cross-contamination refers to pathogens, bacteria, and food borne illnesses. Cross-contact refers to allergens specifically. However, depending on how you look at it, cross-contamination IS cross-contact for many. Hope that makes sense.
The Usual Suspects
There are so many places where allergens can hide and cause issues for those with food allergies. Here are the top 5 locations cross contamination happen:
- Shared Manufacturing Equipment
- Bulk Bins at Grocery Stores
- Non-Stick Cookware
- Shared Cutting Boards
The list of cross contamination pitfalls is a lot longer, and there are loads of resources here on RAISE to help you navigate. However, for the sake of not writing a 20 page essay, I’ll stop myself there. I don’t say ANY of this to scare you. Rather, I want to empower and educate.
I feel it’s so important that we walk into this whole “lifestyle” eyes wide open so we’re better able to serve ourselves and our children.
Let’s Investigate Those Suspects
Did you know most dairy free food is made on shared equipment with dairy? Lots of certified gluten free foods are made on shared equipment with wheat… let those facts sink in for a moment. Read more about this in the Dairy Free Swaps article.
For some people, this won’t be an issue. Trace amounts of allergens don’t pose a threat and they’ll be a-OK to consume said foods. For others however, they will have to be vigilant and ensure that their food is produced on dedicated equipment, or in a dedicated facility. The only way to learn this information is to get in touch with the company that produces the food.
If you hear things like “we have an allergen program in place and test” still push the question. Get definitive answers and make sure the food is safe for you. Ask about recalls and how often the test fail. Any company that can’t be transparent with you should not be trusted (assuming you can’t have trace amounts).
Bulk Bins at the Grocery Store
These can pose a problem because as customers shop, there’s residue on their hands. Their hands touch the handles to scoop food, and in some cases, the handle may touch the food. Customers may accidentally touch the food, or drop something into the bin. They may scoop from one bin, then leave trace amounts in the next bin the access.
I have personally witnessed this and can’t stress this enough: if you can’t handle trace amounts, avoid the bulk bins. You can usually ask the store to special order something in bulk, or contact the manufacturer directly.
It’s the best thing I can tell people. If you’re new to food allergies, old non-stick pans should be replaced. Same goes for cast iron, and anything that has scratches. Allergens can remain in the crevices and cause a problem later on. Total side note, but not: shared toasters are not gluten free.
On to Sponges
Picture this, you’ve made cheese pasta in a pan, and are cleaning it off with a sponge. Next, you grab the pan used for your allergy kid and clean it too. Same sponge of course. There it is… the dreaded cross contamination. In our home we have four sponge stations for this exact reason… to prevent contamination while cleaning up.
Shared Cutting Boards Are a Problem for the Same Reason as Scratched Items
The create small crevices for allergens to remain. I knew a guy once who cut corn-contaminated watermelon on his cutting board, then had a full on reaction the next time he used the board. Sadly, it was like a two-for-one reaction in that case. Needless to say, when I try new produce for myself, I cut on a paper towel before I trust to use my personal cutting board.
While there are lots of other ways cross contamination can sneak into your kitchen, these are the top 5 by far. I will add in one more however: people.
People will always be the weak link, and it’s almost always an accident (yes, some people are seriously malicious). It’s an accidental double dip, or grabbing the wrong pan. It’s eating an allergen and forgetting to wash up before moving on (especially hard with little kids).
Allergens are everywhere, and the more we can learn to avoid them, the safer we will be.
How We Prevent Cross Contamination In Our Home
These are the main steps that we take to prevent issues. I may be forgetting a few little things, but without these systems in place, I don’t know where we would be. These steps revolve mainly to our child with life threatening food allergies (my personal protocols are a bit different, and we’ll have to cover those another day).
- Purchased packaged foods must be made on dedicated equipment, free from dairy and wheat. He is egg intolerant, so we allow shared equipment with egg.
- Companies must be called before a commitment to multiple purchases. Sometimes he takes a bite (for product reviews) but until we hear back, it’s generally a no-go.
- Food is cooked in dedicated pots/pans that are color-coded.
- Wooden spoons are color-coded, as are items such as colanders.
- Major allergens are kept outside the kitchen in a separate fridge.
- We have two toaster ovens and an outdoor hot plate.
- Major allergens must be eaten with disposable utensils and plates/bowls.
- There is a separate trash can in the front room for major allergens so they don’t enter the kitchen.
- The sink must be clear before major allergen dishes may enter (pots, etc.)
- Separate sponges for allergen foods.
- Hands must be washed (even if you think nothing touched you) after handling allergens.
- Allergens are eaten at a small table, separate from the main dining table.
I think those are all of our steps. Part of the reason it works: the kids have been trained their whole lives. For people with older kids who are newly diagnosed, there will be a (tough) time of transition. Remember to stay proactive and positive during any major change in your home. For as hard as this is for us parents, it’s hard on the kids too.
Have questions about cross contamination? Leave us a comment so we can point you in the right direction.