In the middle of my “Wow, life is awesome, so many things and people to be thankful for” festive spirit, I have been glutened for the third time in as many weeks. The first time was a serious glutening the like of which I haven’t experienced since diagnosis (thank goodness) that left me miserably ill for the worst part of a week. The latter two were simple cross contaminations, but this last one has left me feeling very flat and really quite cranky.
I had planned to spend this week writing positive, uplifting things about finding my calling and what I am thankful for, but I can’t leave this unsaid. You should not be able to get a food handling certificate, or be employed to work in any place that serves food, until you understand cross contamination. Because here’s the thing: cross contamination can make a person with coeliac disease or other serious food intolerances very miserable (and cross, in fact!), but for people with severe allergies, it can kill.
So what the heck is cross contamination? It’s when food that is free of a particular substance – such as gluten, dairy, egg or nuts, which are some of the common allergens – comes into contact with food, or even traces of food, that is not free of that substance. That food is now contaminated with the allergen, and is no longer safe for people with serious allergies to eat.
So, for example, if you pick up a slice of gluten free cake with the same tongs you just used to pick up a slice of cake made with wheat flour, that cake is no longer gluten free. If you store the “gluten free cookies” in the same basket as those made from wheat, rye, oats or barley, those cookies are no longer gluten free, and should not be sold as such.
If you deep fry potato chips in the same oil in which you deep fry, say, fish in batter made from wheat flour, or chicken nuggets with bread crumbs, then those chips are not gluten free. Any BBQ which is not used exclusively for gluten free food is not gluten free unless it is cleaned back to shining metal before use. The standard “heat it up, slather it with oil and then scrape it off” technique does not leave the BBQ gluten free. Most BBQs are contaminated from sausages (many of which contain wheat flour), or marinades, almost all of which contain gluten in some form. Many BBQs are also contaminated with peanuts, from satays or marinades containing peanut oil.
At the cafe that poisoned me today, I asked for a piece of gluten free cake. Because the waitress had just pointed to a bunch of cookies in a basket and said that half of the cookies in that basket were gluten free, I specifically asked her to make sure the tongs used on the cake were clean, as otherwise the cake would not be gluten free. I pointed to the cookies and said “they are not gluten free, because they are now contaminated.”
She said of course she would, but looked at me as though I was a nutter – just another difficult customer, probably with OCD. Another staff member meanwhile served the cake, and sadly I was not paranoid enough to ask about the tongs again. I do get tired of making life difficult for people – I know what a pain it is trying to avoid cross contamination.
However, the price I pay for this lack of paranoia is severe stomach pains, feeling like I want to throw up, and running to the toilet every 20 minutes. Also feeling miserably exhausted and wanting to curl up and die. From a minor poisoning like this one I will probably feel ok tomorrow, just drained. From a more severe poisoning it could be a week of extreme unpleasantness. But I am merely intolerant, not allergic. If those crumbs had been nut crumbs and my allergy was a severe nut allergy, I could be dead because that waitress did not understand cross contamination.
Yes, I could simply not eat out, but that is incredibly socially limiting. I try to give my kids (who also suffer from food intolerances) a normal life, and a normal social life. So we occasionally pay the price with cross contamination. But if we had a life threatening food allergy in the family, I don’t think we could take that chance. I understand that people make mistakes, and sometimes cross contamination happens even in my own kitchen, despite my best efforts. But to have no clue what cross contamination is, or the consequences for people with serious food allergies – I think that’s inexcusable for someone working in the restaurant/cafe industry.