Commentary: Grocery stores need to consider people with food allergies

Opinion posted December 18, 2012 in News by By Emily Cirillo


When I got to the fresh fruit and vegetable section of my favorite grocery store recently, I found open displays of almonds, hazelnuts and pecans that were touching other fruit stands.  Considering that the store has a corner devoted to more than 30 different containers of every kind of nut imaginable, it was not only bizarre that tree nuts were suddenly featured among the produce, but also irresponsible.    

As someone allergic to peanuts and tree nuts, what I eat is a daily concern.  I plan my meals in advance and must work cooking time into my hectic academic schedule.  I avoid eating at restaurants because it’s a given that I risk having an allergic reaction from shared surfaces and utensils. 

But what should I do when I’m scared to bring food from a grocery store into my spotless, nut-free kitchen?  If I can’t buy food from a grocery store, where will I find food that is safe for me to eat? 

Food allergies are real and are becoming more prevalent.  According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, an organization that raises awareness and does research on allergies, 15 million people and counting have food allergies.  I’m guilty of contributing to the statistic that there is an allergy-induced emergency room visit every three minutes.  I have been rushed to the ER several times after my throat began to swell. 

From 1997 to 2007, there was an 18 percent increase in food allergies and the number of children allergic to peanuts tripled, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. 

The food allergens responsible for 90 percent of allergic reactions are milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish, according to the Food and Drug Administration. 

People with any of these serious allergies would know not to go to the seafood department if they are allergic to fish or shellfish, the dairy aisle if they are allergic to milk, or the bread and bakery section if they are allergic to wheat.  So why are tree nuts suddenly appearing among produce that used to be safe for people with tree nut allergies? 

While it was unlikely that a customer or employee would have directly contaminated the produce by touching nuts in one of the many containers a minute’s walk away, it’s a no-brainer that the risk of cross-contamination significantly increases when unpackaged nuts are within reaching distance of the produce.  An entire section of produce that was once relatively safe to eat is now questionable. 

Food handlers need to take food allergies seriously, not only so they have happy customers, but also so they don’t leave themselves vulnerable to liability and negligence lawsuits.  

Food allergies are on the rise, and the amount and type of exposure that can trigger a severe reaction has made threshold levels unpredictable.  The food industry needs to take the proper precautions until food allergies are fully understood because there is currently no cure for them.

In my case, eating nuts used to make me vomit as a child, make my face puffy as a teenager and make my throat swell as a young adult.  Now, I get migraine headaches just being in the same room as nuts for an extended period of time.  My fingers have swelled to the size of sausages from touching door handles and elevator buttons, presumably because the person who touched them before me was eating something with nuts. 

The miniscule amount of nuts that would have never bothered me as a child now sends my body into a life-threatening reaction.  One time, my throat swelled when my boyfriend kissed me because he had eaten a peanut butter cookie earlier in the day.   

For those of us with food allergies, we are always aware of our surroundings and what others are doing. 

I listen for crinkling wrappers that might indicate a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.  I pay attention to how my body is feeling if the smell of hazelnut coffee permeates the air.  I make mental notes of everything I see people touch if I know they have been eating a food with nuts so I don’t touch those things, too. 

You would never know that I am constantly checking all of these things because I don’t make a fuss.  If it becomes necessary, I will remove myself from the situation by leaving the room, an action that has no effect on anyone but myself. 

I’m not saying to ban the sale of the eight common food allergens or requesting that the public not eat them – believe me, I think they’re delicious.  I’m asking that food suppliers take precautions to avoid cross-contamination, and that they not be so callous with their product placement. 

I want to be able to eat and breathe, too.