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When Food Can Kill

By Elisheva Taitz

I am a mother, one who is passionate about anything having to do with my daughter—what I put in her mouth, on her body, and anywhere in her environment. Some call me crazy; others understand. Call it “first-child syndrome”—they say the “craziness” subsides with subsequent children. We will see. There is only so much we can control when they are young, and it is in our best interests to give her the best even if she does not yet know it.

One issue that I take with high regard is food allergies. I am no doctor, allergist, or expert (except for late-night WebMD reading, and having my pediatrician’s number practically on speed dial). I am “just” a mom . . . of a child with severe food allergies. We found out the hard way, before she was one year old, on two separate occasions in which she broke out in hives. I had her skin and blood tested.

I also have 18 years of “experience” growing up with a sibling with a larger number of food allergies than my daughter’s. The allergies give me something to be nervous about every day, but the fact that my mother practically did all the research makes my life that much calmer. Having a great set of pediatric doctors helps too.

Back in the ’90s, food allergies were essentially a “huh” topic, and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches were in many brown bags with no second thoughts. There were barely any warning labels on kids’ snacks. People were much more naive about the subject than they are now. Since then, awareness has heightened.

You cannot walk into a preschool or elementary school these days without knowing that peanuts and nuts are off-limits. As the strongest of the food allergens, and because of the likelihood of reactions to airborne contamination, schools have banned every trace of nuts from their premises. In some cases I feel as though my daughter’s school is stricter than I am, and thank G‑d for that. The number of EpiPens on her school office’s bulletin board is tremendous. I wish I knew why the rate of children with food allergies is so high, and their reactions so strong, and what I could have done to prevent it (read: nothing!), knowing my daughter will most likely never in her life have peanut butter or nuts—some of my all-time-favorite foods.

As kids, whenever we would go out as a family, my brother always carried his EpiPen (or at least he was supposed to, which most of the time caused my mother to become a nervous wreck when she found out he barely carried it around). With anaphylaxis (airway constriction), there is no time to waste. However, despite his “negligence,” he hasn’t had more than two serious incidents in his life thus far. With my daughter, we ended up in the emergency room after a tremendous contact reaction to walnuts, not even ingestion. And the presentation of an allergic reaction to the same morsel of food can be different with each subsequent occurrence. The child can present hives one time, and then the next time experience throat constriction. There is no rhyme or reason, and sometimes that is hard to explain.

I have become “that mom” who needs to make sure nothing has nuts—at birthday parties, restaurants, and friends’ houses, and when we are invited out for Shabbos meals. Not everyone is educated about the severity of this issue. Why should the average mother realize that a peanut allergy isn’t the same as a tree-nut allergy? Why would she know that not every child has the same severity of reaction—one child could present a few hives on her stomach after ingesting an almond; my child’s eyes might blow up to the point of closing and she will have extremely heavy breathing; while another child might, G‑d forbid, stop breathing on the spot.

I would not expect the average person to know how to use an EpiPen, but I wish it were more commonplace to be knowledgeable and respectful. Chances are extremely high that there is a kid with allergies, whether it be tomatoes, dairy, or a life-threatening peanut allergy, in your child’s class. I have seen the reactions. I have been in the hospital and have experienced what no parent should, but I have gotten many comments that I am “overreacting” or that we are the inconvenient cause of why your son can’t eat Bamba while playing with my daughter.

With my brother being allergic to nuts, seeds, and dairy, my mother would encounter many naysayers and those who would turn a shoulder when asked to make a necessary accommodation for him. It was always an inconvenience to the pizza store to use a clean knife to cut him a cheeseless slice, or for a restaurant waiter to investigate whether there is an allergen in a particular menu item, or his school having to go out of the way to buy pareve ice cream for the class “ice cream party” siyum. (This is not to say that there haven’t been greatly helpful individuals who go out of their way to help and accommodate.) While it is unfortunate that it is the norm, I feel fortunate that I won’t have to jump as many hurdles as my mom did, and have my daughter face as much embarrassment as my brother sometimes did, because of the recent rise in awareness.

But there is still a huge amount of ignorance and a sense of inconvenience. A few months ago, my family went out for dinner, and the first thing my brother does is cover all his bases as far as what he can or cannot order. He is 19 now, and this is his normal. We proceeded to order an item after asking the waiter many times if it contains nuts or sesame. We were quickly told no, so we ordered it. When it came, right before we were about to dig in, for some reason my mother had the foresight to ask the manager, who had been near the table, if there was sesame in the item. Sesame seems like such a silly allergy—a massive allergic reaction can come from the tiniest seed? The manager profusely apologized and informed us that it was fried in sesame oil. Why did my mother think to ask for the fifth time, and why was the waiter so sure that it did not contain any sesame? Was he too lazy to take the time to go ask the chef?

On a different occasion, my brother ordered a slice of cheeseless pizza after making it clear he had an allergy to dairy, and when he received the slice, he noticed white dots in the sauce and asked the pizza man if he was sure it wasn’t dairy. The pizza man shrugged it off and said the sauce is made with Parmesan cheese. I am happy my daughter does not have a dairy allergy, which would open a wider range of restriction and struggle.

Why aren’t our children’s allergies given the time of day? Why are they shrugged off as if they are nothing? If only more people knew that a child could literally stop breathing on their floor because of something as simple as an almond, a seed, or a piece of cheese, I think they would think twice. The list goes on, as people can be allergic to almost any food—fruits, vegetables, wheat, nuts, dairy, and many more. On the blood test there are about 50+ food items that can be tested.

I am making a greater effort to reach out this year because I was emotionally stricken with the news a few months ago about Dr. Jeffrey Ben-Zvi, from Flatbush, a prominent gastroenterologist who was known at many NYC hospitals, a member of Flatbush Hatzalah, and a devoted ba’al chesed, who suddenly passed away after a severe allergic reaction at a Brooklyn restaurant. It is nothing short of tragic—a simple meal out, which is a luxury we all partake in and take advantage of, caused his death. And maybe it could have been avoided, had the staff been knowledgeable about every item on the menu.

We don’t keep our children isolated because of these restrictions they have, but it made my heart skip a beat when I heard this story. My daughter is three years old, and my husband and I are her advocates. When she is old enough to go by herself, I need to know that she is in responsible, educated hands. It would be extreme to suggest that every adult learn how to administer an EpiPen, which is literally a lifesaving tool. But restaurant owners and workers need to be more in tune to what they are serving a patron—if not for the customer’s sake, then for their own! How will I know that when I order a salad without the slivered almonds, and it mistakenly comes with them, that the restaurant worker in the back will not just remove the almonds from that portion instead of making me an entirely new one? How can I stress that the price of my daughter’s life is greater than the price of a second salad with no trace of nuts in it, because of the waiter’s mistake, if I don’t go to the back and watch it myself?

Menus at local restaurants should contain allergy warnings, just as packaged goods are required by law now to have allergen statements if the product is even processed in the same facility as nuts, eggs, dairy, or wheat, etc., even if the item at hand never came into contact with any of these ingredients.

Paying more attention to customers by not brushing off their requests as silly or inconvenient, as if they are asking for something unreasonable, we can make all dining experiences positive ones, and not nervous, on-edge ones. All it takes is a little training for waiters and waitresses to get to know the details of the menus and specials, a little time to investigate, and the knowledge that being negligent in such matters can put another person’s life in danger. I am positive that it is no waiter’s intention to mislead or misguide a customer; rather, a restaurant during a busy service is by nature distracting, and I understand that. But with a little focus and guidance, we can avoid terrible tragedies like the unfortunate passing of a great man, Dr. Jeffrey Ben-Zvi.

Please take heed to this call, whether you are a teacher, parent, or, most importantly, a restaurant worker. Don’t be ignorant. Extra vigilance is needed when it comes to life-threatening situations. Be more diligent the next time you are asked to accommodate an individual with food allergies, whether it be a mother speaking for her child or an adult asking on his own behalf, whatever the allergies are, and however crazy it may sound to you. v

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Posted by on July 14, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.