Another follow-up to my post earlier this week, Food Allergies and the Law. A lawyer in Wisconsin sent me a thoughtful note detailing his own experiences with peanut allergies and his thoughts on prevention. I asked if I could share it here and he agreed, but he requested that I not identify him by name. If anyone wishes to contact him directly, he said, they may do so through me. Here is his note:
“I have suffered from allergies to peanuts and other nuts since I was about 4 yrs old. I am 61 now. When I was a child, few people were aware of nut allergies and the reactions they cause. There was little labeling of foods. In elementary school, school lunches were so dangerous that after a few reactions I simply brown bagged it. Lunches or dinners at friends houses were also very dangerous. Adults did not realize that not serving me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches like my friends were having avoided the problem. They would frequently use the peanut butter knife to spread butter on my summer sausage sandwich. I was embarrassed to explain that I still could not eat the sandwich because of the contamination from the knife. Fortunately as a youngster, my reactions were not truly anaphylactic (they have gotten worse over the years), although there was some difficulty breathing. In a few hours, I was feeling better. But I was pretty much on my own to protect myself.
“My objective in writing you is to stress the importance of self defense for those with food allergies. The reality is that you simply can not eat food unless you are absolutely sure the ingredients are free of your allergy triggers. Labeling has been a great benefit to me. But I still simply avoid the unknown. I now work in an office where most fellow employees know of my allergies. But on birthdays, food containing nuts is regularly brought to share. I don’t eat any of it unless I have personally spoken with the baker to determine the ingredients. I will eat the food only if I trust the baker. For example, I once asked a fellow employee if her cookies contained peanuts or other nuts. She said no. After one bite and an immediate reaction, I reasked her. She then told me there were peanut butter chips in the cookies, Duhhhh! She didn’t know peanut butter was a problem, and anyway, they were just chips! I have not eaten a cookie since without following my rule stated above. I have been aware for years that egg rolls, certain pastas and chili often contain peanuts or peanut butter. I avoid them unless I know the cook and confirm the absence of nuts.
“Labeling is not a cure-all. I spent a night in the hospital after eating ‘plain’ carmel corn. The ingredients listed on the bag made no mention of peanuts. The factory apparently misbagged the corn, placing carmel corn with peanuts in the plain bags. I looked in the bag after eating it and before heading to the hospital and I could clearly see the nuts throughout. Should I have looked first, since I was well aware carmel corn often contains peanuts? Maybe. So now I am careful to look at what I am eating notwithstanding the labeling. Notwithstanding this, labeling has made my life much easier and I would support continued rules on accurate and complete food labeling where it is practical. I would also support the abolition of any rules prohibiting allergic children from carrying and administering epi pens to themselves. I have used an epi pen no less than 10 times, probably more, and always have two available, one at home and one in my briefcase. I also save the expired pens for about 6-8 months as backups, as they are surely effective that long. I am also pleased to see the growing number of websites where parents and allergic children can learn about their allergies and how to cope.
“I am not willing to go so far as to back a call for new legislation of other types. Bans of nuts from schools, separate eating areas I think go too far. I have a distaste for placing a burden on society to protect me in this regard. If a child is eating next to another child whose food is a problem, the allergic child needs to know, instructed by his/her parents, to move. Children with food allergies need to know they simply cannot grab a cookie off of a plate and eat it. My guess is your son knows that now. I sympathize with both of you as I know a reaction is just a horrible experience. So please share this email with him. My experiences may alert him to risks he is unaware of.
“Thanks for your article. I’m sure it opened a few eyes to the problem. Take care and my best to your son.”