When Food is Potentially Fatal

When you’re nine months pregnant, you have the doctor on speed dial. You often have an overnight bag packed in the trunk of your car. You are prepared to be the next patient.

Here’s what happens when your almost-2-year-old shows you just how she feels about that. She eats peanuts from a friend’s baggie of trail mix on a play date. She vomits all over the back of your car and your bulging belly while you both strip down on the side of the highway with flashers going and friends pulling over behind you to help. Scary red hives spread all over your little girl’s chest, arms, legs, face and neck. Yet, she continues to plea that you turn off the radio and find her “ABC song.” You buckle back in, both half-naked; call the pediatrician and tell them it’s either there or the ER; call your husband and say meet us at the hospital; and drive like hell. You watch in the mirror as your daughter’s tiny body turns lethargic. Then, you pray.

This is anaphylaxis. This is a food allergy. This is all thanks to a few peanuts.

Thankfully, my daughter survived our awful ordeal with the help of a very prepared pediatrician’s office. Without their help, I don’t like to think about what could have happened. After our ordeal, I discovered several other families that survive, deal and cope with food allergies on a daily basis. I also discovered that not everyone understands food allergies. Ahem, it’s not okay to serve PB&J for other 3-year-olds at a birthday party where my child will be attending.

The fear of another episode is constant. You begin to live with the worry about your child going to school, eating out, playing with friends, going to Grandma’s, and being ostracized.

You continually search for food information and ingredients. During your journey into labels, specialty grocery stores and online forums, you somehow feel isolated. Yet, there is an entire community that is waiting to help you, and they don’t serve peanuts …or tree nuts, or dairy, or soy, or eggs, or fish. This is why I write.

photos by Laurel Austin

In the Kansas City area and across the United States, one in every 13 children has a food allergy, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN™). Also, they state that as many as 15 million people in the U.S. deal with food allergies that could likely be fatal every day. To date, there is no cure.

It’s a fact that Beth Berger knows too well. She has three growing boys at home, two of which have diagnosed food allergies that cause severe reactions. Berger has been on high alert for anything containing peanuts or tree nuts after her oldest son, Kyle, was diagnosed with food allergies at the age of 7. She is insistent upon carrying EpiPens anywhere she or the boys go, and she says, despite the fact that the boys now understand their allergies, it’s still awful when they go to sleepovers or birthday parties.

“I worry because he (Kyle) is becoming a teenager and is getting more daring with things,” says Berger who is hopeful that Kyle’s friends are also more understanding now since several other kids carry EpiPens for food allergies.

EpiPens are a mainstay for 10-year-old Emma Andreasen. Like Kyle Berger, Emma is allergic to peanuts.

“I take my EpiPen wherever I go,” says Emma. “I take it to Tae Kwon Do, the post office, Scrabble Club. They’re in my backpack and in the nurse’s office at school.”

For Emma, living with a food allergy is a way of life. She says that she gets a little upset at times when she thinks about her allergy and wonders why she has it. She gets a little jealous when friends talk about where they’ve eaten out, since she doesn’t frequent food establishments that aren’t deemed peanut-safe by her parents. Mostly, Emma feels supported by her Mom, family, friends and teachers. One of her best friends proclaimed that she doesn’t even like peanut butter anymore. Despite her age, Emma recognizes when people “get it.”

“I was so happy the other day when I went to Applebee’s,” says Emma. “The server brought me out a peanut-free menu, and I was so excited because it had a lot of my favorite foods.”

Emma’s mom, Heidi Andreasen, is a self-proclaimed stickler about dining out because of Emma’s food allergy. She says that the family only frequents about 10 restaurants that they know are peanut-free. According to Andreasen, some restaurants may provide a peanut-free menu, but she worries that their preparation techniques could cause cross-contamination if peanuts are anywhere in the restaurant. That’s a valid concern according to Junehee Kwon, associate professor in the Department of Hospitality Management and Dietetics at Kansas State University.

“Cross-contact is a common cause of a food allergic reaction,” says Kwon. “Restaurant staff must know how to avoid cross-contact. Common sanitizer that ‘kills germs’ does not remove allergens.”

Kwon has hosted a research study with food-allergic participants that showed a number of ways in which restaurants could better accommodate food-allergic customers with proper training and motivation.

John Lee, director of training at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue agrees that education is key for all staff that work in the food industry. In order to make customers feel comfortable and safe dining out, Lee and his team have implemented clear procedures that occur when a food allergic customer sits at one of their tables.

Resources for Parents

Here is a thumbnail guide for parents of children with food allergies—an event, a support group, some physician tips and resources:

• The Walk for Food Allergy to benefit the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAANTM) will be held on Saturday, September 15, 2012 at Theatre in the Park Pavilion in Shawnee Mission Park at 7710 Renner Road in Shawnee. Check-in for the two-mile walk begins at 9 a.m. For more information, e-mail WalkKansasCity@foodallergy.org or visit foodallergywalk.org/kansascity_ks12.

• Food Allergy Connection meets once a month at Panera Bread in the Oark Park Mall in Overland Park to discuss all things related to food allergies. Families or persons with food allergies are welcome to attend. For more information, contact Colleen Connor at colleen@zoomeeland.com.

• According to Celina C. Bernabe, D.O, a physician at Allergy & Asthma Care in Overland Park, the top food allergens for children are the following:

•  Milk
•  Eggs
•  Peanuts
•  Soy
•  Fish
•  Tree Nuts

Food Allergy Family-Recommended Resources

•  Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN): foodallergy.org

•  Food Allergy Initiative (FAI): faiusa.org

•  Kids with Food Allergies (KFA): kidswithfoodallergies.org

• AllergyEats: allergyeats.com

“If a customer voices a concern, the service staff immediately gets a manager to speak to the customer, and the manager always brings over an extensive allergen information sheet,” says Lee. “After that, the kitchen staff gets notice of the allergen and works a process where we use different plates, different tools, separate grilling, solo prep areas and solo staff to prepare allergen-free menu items.”

Recently, Lee and his team partnered with a bakery based in Lee’s Summit called Kneaded Specialties that provides gluten-free/vegan buns so that people with gluten allergies can enjoy a brisket sandwich. He’s hopeful that other restaurants take note and that food providers continue to improve labeling practices.

Emma Andreasen is getting pretty good at reading labels, and at Halloween, Emma knew exactly what was going in and what was going to come out of her basket. If she feels uncomfortable about any food item, she always calls her Mom, or she doesn’t eat it. I asked her to send my daughter some of her been-through-this tips.

Berger also offers hope to other parents and families who are managing food allergies. She doesn’t want them to feel alone, and she encourages them to attend the FAAN walk in September with their children. If they are like Kyle, they will feel more included, supported and educated after attending for the first time.

“I tell them that it’s not going to be an awful, end of the world thing, since people are starting to understand now,” says Berger. “But always stand up for your child. You need to keep them safe. Don’t feel apologetic. People are very accommodating, but they just don’t understand.”

Celina C. Bernabe, D.O. sees a lot of confused people in her office when it comes to food allergies. Dr. Bernabe is a physician at Allergy & Asthma Care in Overland Park. She finds the increase in food allergies in our developed country to be alarming and recommends four main ways for families and patients to fight food allergies.

“First, you need education. Then, you need vigilance. You need an action plan, and you need meds,” says Bernabe, who advocates that prescribed patients carry two EpiPens at all times to fight food allergic reactions.

Bernabe gets a lot of questions about how to prevent food allergies. She admits that there is no 100-percent prevention plan and says that there are a lot of false myths regarding food introduction for infants and breastfeeding exclusion diets. However, she says that the only proven way to prevent food allergies is by breastfeeding for the first six months of life.

“It’s been shown that kids with life threatening food allergies have a lower quality of life than kids with diabetes,” says Bernabe, who suggests that all of the maneuvering around school regulations, extracurricular activities and restaurant choices is beyond stressful for families and their children. “Food allergies are an epidemic.”