I would go nuts!

Imagine having a child with such severe allergies that they can die from intake of the smallest amount of the allergen. We have friends who have a daughter who has 22 allergies and has been hospitalised 30 (!) times for anaphylactic shock. That’s 30 times of not knowing whether your child will make it or not.

The mother of this child desperately pleads to all staff caring for children to understand that this really is serious. The last hospitalisation had been caused by a mistake in the school kitchen: the staff mixed up lactose intolerance and cow milk protein allergy, so the child’s special food had been prepared with lactose free milk – full of the cow milk protein she was so allergic to!

Such mistakes are awful and unprofessional, but avoidable with further education and better routines. But what about something as simple as picking up some groceries? As a parent to an allergic child, shopping will take you much longer as you read every single label to make sure your child is not exposed to anything dangerous. You become painfully aware that most of the things you used to shop say “may contain traces of nuts”; in fact, 65% of all products in a supermarket have precautionary labelling!

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At every birthday party or dinner invitation, the hosts will empathise with you as they discover during their preparations that anything and everything may contain traces of either peanuts, tree nuts, egg, milk, sesame, fish, wheat, or soy.

Which is why a study performed by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute is both so elegant, important, and frustrating. The allergy team at MCRI clearly understood the everyday stresses of parents when they designed this study. They selected 128 items among chocolates, breakfast cereals, muesli bars, biscuits, and cookies, foods most likely to carry precautionary labelling. If you are a parent or grandparent, start counting how many such items you purchased last time you went shopping for the kids.

Of the 128 samples, only nine (7%) with precautionary labelling had detectable levels of peanut. The others had nothing! Of products that had precautionary labelling for hazelnut, milk, egg, or soy, none were found to have any detectable level of those allergens. None! Of the 9 samples containing peanut, all were below the dose someone allergic to peanuts would react to.

Good thing then, that 22% of parents of children with food allergies simply ignored precautionary labelling statements, according to a survey performed by the same research group. But would you dare to ignore such statements if your child had been hospitalised 30 times for anaphylactic shock?!

So why do manufacturers employ precautionary labelling? Of  course because they want to avoid liability. And because there is legislation to say product content has to be stated. The big question is why they are still allowed precautionary labelling in most countries? Why is it ok for billion dollar industries to routinely print such statements on their products, putting the workload of selecting possible products for their children to eat on parents who are already under enough stress?

As a parent of a severely allergic child I would go nuts. I can totally see why our friend says she needs to fight for her daughter because no one else will. Except the father, I would hope. And it is a fight with high stakes.

The food industry will not be the one to take the first steps toward more rigorous regulation on the exact amounts of allergen that needs to be present for precautionary labelling. However, judging by the number and intensity of the comments on my friend’s blog post about her daughter’s last hospitalisation, there could be a storm of parents demanding change. And I am proud that my host institution has given them such a firm foundation to stand on with their study.

Have fun at the supermarket next time, figuring out those precautionary labels!

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