Category Archives: Food

Preventable Death. From Grilled Cheese.

If you are told a child in your care has a severe food allergy, believe them. Don’t kill a three-year-old with a grilled cheese sandwich.

According to his parents, staff at the preschool knew about his severe dairy allergy, but an adult gave him the cheese sandwich anyway. He ate it, went into anaphylactic shock, and died in the emergency room. No word on whether they gave him epinephrine. (New York law allows schools to stock it, but doesn’t require them to.) Update: Apparently the school called his mother instead of 911. Want to bet paramedics could have helped?

“We will get to the bottom of what happened here…” says a spokesman for NYC’s health department, “and whether the facility could have done something differently to prevent this tragedy.” Well, yeah: Don’t give kids food that you know they’re severely allergic to!

Children with severe allergies know to avoid certain foods, but they need help to do it:

  • It takes time to learn how to avoid all forms of food you’re allergic to. I was seventeen before I learned that cross-hatches meant peanut butter cookies, because we’d never had them in the house. (Incidentally: that was the first time I actually used an Epi-Pen.)
  • Some foods have substitutes that look and taste similar enough that you could take a bite — and it only takes one bite — before discovering it’s the real thing. Sunflower seed butter for peanut butter. Daiya for cheese (and yes, you can make a grilled Daiya sandwich).
  • Ingredients can be hidden. There are an awful lot of pasta sauces that look like standard tomato sauce with herbs that also have cheese in them.
  • Kids that young have no choice but to trust the adults taking care of them. There’s a power difference. If you trust someone, you’re less likely to double-check them. And when you’re not sure? Not all kids can push back against an insistent adult, especially one they’re accustomed to depending on. (Keep that issue of power imbalance in mind when you read other stories in the news today, too.)
  • Preschoolers aren’t exactly known for their impulse control, so even the ones who have the courage to self-advocate won’t always stop to check before taking that first bite.

Maybe it was someone new who didn’t know yet. Maybe it was someone who didn’t take it seriously. Maybe there was a mix-up and he was supposed to get something else, but they handed him the cheese sandwich by mistake. All of those could have been prevented.

Yes, mistakes happen. Even fatal ones. But they happen a lot less often when you listen to people who are facing the danger, believe them, and take action to follow through on it.

1 in 13 children has a food allergy. Even if your child doesn’t, they have friends who do.

Don’t let them down.

Update on the case from Allergic Living (Nov 16):

The incident is still under investigation. It’s not even clear at this point whether the specific person who gave him the sandwich was aware of the allergy (though they certainly should have been), or whether they gave him epinephrine, though it is clear that:

  • The school was aware of his allergy
  • The school didn’t call 911, they called his mother instead.

The school has been closed pending the investigation results, and new directives have been issued that childcare staff will call 911 in the event of a medical emergency.

Walk for Food Allergy: Studio Edition

Today I joined hundreds of people at the CBS Studios in Los Angeles to raise money for Food Allergy Research and Education through the FARE Walk for Food Allergy.

We skipped last year and decided to join this year’s event at the last minute. Rather than walking along the shore at Long Beach, this year’s course ran through the CBS Studios lot. It started on what looked like a suburban New England street, and wound past production trailers, soundstages, prop storage, and even the Los Angeles river….

Walk for Food Allergy by the Los Angeles River

…such as it is. Other parts of the river are much nicer, even navigable at times, but this stretch is basically a concrete drainage ditch inside a bigger drainage ditch. It looks bleak now, but during flood years the channels fill completely, preventing the city’s streets from flooding instead.

Wait, Walk for What–Who–Why?

FARE funds studies to explore the causes of food allergy and develop new therapies. They run outreach programs to make it safer to visit restaurants, or just be at school or the workplace.

Food allergies can range from mild to life-threatening — yes, people die — and those of us on the far end of the range need to be constantly on the watch for hidden ingredients and cross-contact between foods we can eat and foods we can’t.

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Free Shavocado!

The Del Taco sign actually says Free Shavocado (ask inside)

This sign used to say FRESH AVOCADO. But for several years, it’s said something more like FRE SH AVOCA DO. I’m not 100% certain, but I think they may have actually moved the SH further from FRE and toward AVOCADO a few times…and now they’ve finally just added another E.

After I posted it to Instagram, a friend on Tumblr pointed out that the #Free Shavocado tag already exists. I found a short video of the sign in its “FRE SH AVOCA DO” state, narrated by someone giggling and saying, “Come to Del Taco! They have free sha-VA-ca-doo!” Even funnier: The restaurant updated the corporate sign between then and now without correcting the spacing.

Or maybe that’s when they decided to “fix” the spelling instead!

Why would you risk eating out with a food allergy?

On every news story about someone who experienced a severe allergic reaction outside the home, there will be someone who says, “If it’s that dangerous, why would you even risk it? Keep your kid at home and make all their food yourself from scratch all the time!”*

Let’s think about this.

A car could kill your child. Today, tomorrow, years down the line. This is not a hypothetical. This is a fact, and it’s a risk that you live with.

Why on earth would you risk letting your child cross the street? Keep them at home! Don’t let them out of the house in case someone jumps the curb!

That’s…not exactly practical, is it?

You don’t keep your child inside 24/7 to avoid cars. You take them outside, with precautions. You teach them to stay on the sidewalk, cross at corners and crosswalks, and look for cars before crossing. You walk with them until they’re old enough to walk safely on their own.

You rely on drivers to follow the rules of the road…but you still look both ways in case someone’s distracted or feels entitled and plows through a red light anyway.

And then your children can live their lives out in the world instead of being frightened recluses who hide in the basement whenever a car goes by.

You can’t eliminate risk 100%, but you can manage it.

The exact balance is going to be different for each person with an allergy.** But it’s not unreasonable to expect the food industry to follow basic safety procedures to avoid cross-contact — and to not introduce a danger that wasn’t there to begin with.

*Even if you have the time to prepare every meal at home, there’s still the risk of mislabeling or cross-contamination in the supply chain. Right now, there’s an ongoing recall of baked goods produced with peanut-contaminated flour. A year ago, supplies of cumin were tainted with peanuts. That impacted everything from prepared foods down to bulk-bin spices. Everyone’s at risk with the massive listeria recall of vegetables, allergies or no.

**Heck, it’s different for each of my allergies, and I’m one person. I’ll cheerfully walk into a coffee shop that serves almond milk and soy milk, but won’t set foot in one of those burger places that plops a bin of peanuts on the table. Even with my Epi-Pen. That’s just playing live-action Frogger.