“Is this safe for me to eat?”
This is one of the most frequently asked questions I use in my everyday life. Reading ingredient labels is a daily routine for me. I have memorized verbatim the phrases I use to ask about nut safety at restaurants. Living with a life-threatening peanut and tree nut allergy, I have become accustomed to the reality that my choices could result in an anaphylactic reaction. I’ve known the steps to take during a reaction ever since I can remember: inject the first EpiPen, call 911, inject the second one (if symptoms do not lessen), and call your parents. And forget trying new foods in a foreign country; granola bars are your best friend.
Individuals with food allergies have always been a minority, but it is becoming more common every year. The BBC cites that 7% of the world population in 2018 has a food allergy, compared to 3% in 1960. Additionally, the foods that individuals are allergic to are widening. One in four people with an allergy will experience anaphylaxis. It is not an irrational fear. Because of this genetic burden that I (and plenty of others) carry, I have no choice but to put my life into someone else’s hands when outside of my home.
It only makes sense that accommodation is a necessity in restaurants.
Barnett et al. revealed that the majority of anaphylactic reactions occur when “eating out” in their study. A staggering 70% of reactions occur despite previous communication to the staff at the establishment. Warning labels on menus are a simple measure to decrease the crisis from occurring. It is evident, with experience, that plenty of restaurants do not care to make this distinction.
I experience anxiety when letting someone know of my dietary needs, as many others do. This has become an issue because of the reactions I’ve experienced in the past. Looks of irritation have become all too common. Many times I feel guilty that I am a burden to the wait staff even though I am the customer. I never go to ice cream shops anymore because of this issue. They never bother to clean the scoop in between customers, so I have to ask for a new gallon to be brought out. Holding up the line for this request is pretty mortifying. As an introverted person, it embarrasses me to receive unwanted attention. The only reason I voice my allergies is the sheer fear of not being able to breathe and a possibly fatal outcome.
Barnett et al. also disclosed that “significant knowledge gaps” are present in staff. Some examples are believing that a dish is safe to eat after “removing the allergen,” or eating a “small amount” of the allergen is okay. This piece of information is extremely alarming for me. It makes me extremely nervous to eat anything outside of my home. Allergy knowledge should be a requirement for all individuals. Putting my faith into other individuals is simply not enough; worldwide education on food allergies has to be implemented.
Improvements for the future
At the very least, it would seem to be mandatory to educate everyone working in the food industry of the implications of a person with an allergy ingesting the said food. How to operate an EpiPen, knowledge of allergy severity, and proper cleaning techniques in the kitchen are areas to familiarize the public with. Everyone should be taught about this knowledge as well, but beginning with food service would be a good start. Education in middle and high schools could be an impactful start to the continuing of this conversation. When kids are made aware of how to help keep their friends safe, they become advocates instead of irritated or indignant that they can’t have their peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It is a very small sacrifice to make when they realize what could happen to a friend. For example, understanding the severe consequences of leaving a peanut butter cracker wrapper in an airplane seat pocket should become common knowledge. I’ve had instances where I have almost needed to use my EpiPen because of the peanut molecules in the air.
I understand that most people do not deal with severe allergies day to day. Reminders of the severity are essential to increase awareness. To brush off the required needs of someone with a food allergy is not acceptable in any way, shape, or form. I cannot emphasize this enough. I did not choose to have a life-threatening allergy; it does not bring me pleasure to bring attention to my medical needs wherever I go. However, I have to in order to live. Ridicule has no benefits; empathy and compassion are the only ways to move forward.