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Food Allergy Laws

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Sesame: More Than Just a Street

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Sesame allergy has been all over the news lately. Last year, a teenage girl tragically died at Heathrow Airport after eating a Pret a Manger baguette containing sesame—the ingredient was not listed on the packaging. This incident drew attention not only to the severity of sesame allergies, but also to deficiencies in food allergy labeling. 

A growing body of research indicates that sesame allergy is on the rise. A recent study published in Pediatrics estimates that 0.2% of the U.S. population has a sesame allergy, making it the ninth most common food allergy. 

The spike in sesame allergy has triggered a closer look at the way sesame is labeled on food packaging. This past October, the FDA released a statement indicating that it was considering sesame for mandatory allergen labeling on food packaging pursuant to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). Enacted January 1, 2006, FALCPA imposes special labeling requirements for the top eight most common food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, eggs, milk, and soy. As you can see, the list does not currently include sesame. That could soon change. Notably, Canada, the European Union, Australia, and Israel currently require allergen labeling for sesame. 

For those out there managing a sesame allergy, know that you are amazing. Sesame is insidious, and because it does not fall within FALCPA labeling laws, it is infinitely harder to manage. 

If you’ve followed us for a while, you know that I have a daughter with serious food allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. She was diagnosed with these food allergies at one and is now six (and crushing Kindergarten!). What I haven’t mentioned is that from ages two through three we avoided sesame like the plague because of an anaphylactic reaction she’d had to hummus just before her second birthday.

She’d eaten hummus multiple times previously, but one day, while eating hummus at lunch, her lips began turning blue and she started coughing. One epinephrine auto-injector, several hours at our children’s hospital, and some IgE blood testing later, she was home safely with a new food allergy added to the list: sesame. 

Sesame often hides under the guise of “natural flavors” or “spices” on food labels. I used to keep a spreadsheet of every manufacturer I called knowing the ingredient could be lurking behind these vague categories. To make matters worse, some manufacturers won’t share this information, citing trade secret protection. I quickly learned that I had more success if I asked if sesame was included as an ingredient in any of these proprietary categories, as opposed to asking for the whole ingredient list. Sesame also lurks under different names like tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds. If you’re managing a sesame allergy, here’s a great list of food and non-food items that may contain sesame or any of its derivatives. 

It’s been over four years since my daughter’s anaphylactic reaction, and I can joyfully say that she’s outgrown her sesame allergy. But it was no walk in the park to manage, and I still vividly remember my sesame spreadsheet and the tears of frustration that went along with tracking all of the different food ingredients. 

For those managing a sesame allergy, the struggle is real, and FALCPA labeling for sesame would make things a LOT easier! Interestingly, the Pediatrics study we referenced earlier cited that the highest rates of epinephrine auto-injector prescriptions were found for children with peanut, tree nut, and SESAME allergies.

We’ll be following the regulatory deliberations closely, and will be sure to keep you all updated on social media as the discussion unfolds. Do you or does your child have a sesame allergy? What’s your experience been like?

 - Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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Ming Tsai’s Food For Thought

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My journey with food allergies began when I opened my first restaurant, Blue Ginger, in 1998. I felt it was important that our kitchen be mindful of food allergies to ensure that all customers could safely dine with us. Little did I know that soon enough food allergies would become an enormous part of my everyday life. 

Just a few years after opening Blue Ginger, my oldest son was diagnosed with multiple food allergies; in fact, he was born severely allergic to soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, shellfish, and eggs. At first, as a chef, I thought it was an unfunny joke from upstairs. But I soon realized it would be an invaluable lesson and opportunity. I quickly learned that trying to eat at restaurants with food allergies was a much larger task than I imagined. Even though I had established protocols in my restaurant for those with food allergies, most other restaurants didn’t take the same care. I can recall a few times where my family and I were turned away because the chef or restaurant did not want to accommodate us. There were a few occasions where my son was accidentally served a dish containing a small amount of one of his allergens, and within minutes he began exhibiting symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction. As a parent, it’s one the scariest experiences. Thankfully, my wife is a trained nurse, and we were able to spot the signs quickly and administer epinephrine right away. 

First implemented at Blue Ginger, and later at Blue Dragon (which is 100% peanut and tree nut free), we created a book that includes every dish on the menu and a comprehensive list of ingredients separated by dish components (i.e. proteins, starches, vegetables, sauces, and garnishes). This way, the patron and restaurant staff can easily determine which part of the dish has the allergen and omit the item from their order. For example, a customer with a peanut allergy would still be able to have the Chicken Satay with Peanut Sauce by opting for an alternate (and equally delicious) dipping sauce. 

Additionally, any ingredient processed and received from outside vendors is starred and the ingredients are indexed in our system (e.g., dried *egg* pasta). A highlighted ingredient indicates that it is one of the top eight food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, shellfish, fish, milk, or egg. Our protocols also ensure proper lines of communication between the front of house staff and the kitchen. Every manager, server, and bartender is trained to ensure all customers can safely dine with us. You can find an example of our documentation here.

My family’s experiences, and the knowledge that comes with being a restaurant owner and chef, inspired me to champion the first bill in Massachusetts to require all local restaurants to comply with food allergy awareness guidelines. It took four years working with the Massachusetts legislature to write Bill S. 2701, which was eventually signed into law in early 2009.  

I’m incredibly proud of the work that we’ve done in Massachusetts to help those with food allergies have a more positive restaurant experience. As a chef, restaurateur, and a food allergy parent, I’ve experienced this issue from multiple sides. From the customer perspective, it’s important to notify the restaurant when making the reservation, triple-check that the server understands the severity of the allergy, and do a final check when the food arrives at the table for any visible cross-contact with your allergen or mistakes. Food allergies are a two-way street. From the restaurant perspective, we need to have procedures in place to make sure customers can safely eat, but we also need to be made aware of any allergies and understand the severity so that we can accommodate. Over the years, I’ve developed a useful and effective way to better determine the severity of people’s food allergies. I ask, “Is using the same fryer okay?” The point we are getting at here is if shrimp is fried in a fryer, could the customer eat fries out of that same fryer? Depending on the answer we then have a better understanding as to the severity of the food allergy, which we use as a directive to the kitchen staff. 

Restaurants should care about food allergies not only because it keeps their patrons safe, but also because it’s smart business. The hospitality industry can be challenging, and meeting customer’s demands is always of the utmost importance. At the end of the day, we are all fighting for loyal customers. 

I guarantee you, if you serve a food allergy customer a delicious and safe meal, and they leave smiling, you’ll have a customer for life.

Peace and Good Eating, 

Chef Ming Tsai

 

Ming Tsai holds an equity stake in Allergy Amulet.

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Killer Beauty Regimens

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When we think about managing food allergies, we don’t tend to consider lipstick or lotion. But we should.

Walking down the aisle of my local co-op recently, I grabbed a tub of moisturizer labeled “tester” and applied a dab to my hand. I tried placing the scent, and when I couldn’t, turned the jar around and saw almond oil listed as the first ingredient. My stomach clenched, and a variant of “shoot” slipped from my mouth. I’m deathly allergic to tree nuts. I washed my hands immediately, and fortunately, I was fine. Historically, my worst skin exposure outcome is hives. However, given the unpredictability of allergic reactions, it’s still hard not to panic. 

You’d think after all these years and several close calls I’d be more careful; but when it comes to skincare and beauty products, I routinely let down my guard. I shouldn’t.

Did I sufficiently give you a fright? 

Good. Sometimes a little fear is a good thing. Especially when you’re talking about something as serious as an allergic reaction! 

For the food allergic, even moderate skin exposure can be serious. Creams, soaps, oils, make-up, lipstick, and balms can also lead to small amounts of ingestion, so it’s important for those with food allergies and their loved ones to vet these items with the same diligence they do foods. Don’t forget vitamins, teas, and herbal supplements, too! 

Beware the two S’s: spas and salons. 

Planning a massage, manicure, or haircut? Make sure you tell your massage therapist or stylist to avoid products containing your allergen. This is especially true if you’re allergic to nuts—you’d be surprised how many spas and salons use nut oils. Just last month while getting my haircut I was surrounded by advertisements for the salon’s newest cherry almond shampoos and conditioners. Suffice it to say, I steered clear of this product line. 😉 

FDA labeling laws and cosmetics.

Skincare and beauty products are not regulated in the same way that foods are for allergens—even if they contain a common allergenic ingredient! 

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), which we explore in an earlier blog, applies to FDA-regulated food products, not cosmetics and beauty products. Accordingly, these products do not need to adhere to FALCPA labeling requirements, although many brands list these ingredients anyway. Regardless, it’s worth taking note.

We hope this information hasn’t spooked you, although it is Halloween season! Rather, we hope this knowledge helps you stay informed and safe when managing your food allergies. So before you slather on some blood-red lipstick this All Hallow’s Eve, check that label!

Wishing you all a BOO-tiful Halloween! 👻🎃

- Abi and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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The 411 on the 504: School Allergy Plans Decoded

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Last month we covered the basics of kids and epinephrine. This month we’re bringing you the skinny on school management plans for your child’s food allergies.

Are you wondering about a 504? An IEP? Have we lost you? 

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. 

Setting Up the Plan

Most school districts have district-wide plans for food allergy management, treatment, and reaction prevention. Many states also offer suggestions for school districts on managing food allergies based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To date, there is no federal regulation that standardizes these policies and procedures, so these policies vary between states (and often between school districts within each state). 

The first step in setting up an allergy management plan for your child is to reach out to your child’s school. Many schools will ask you and your child’s doctor to fill out an allergy and anaphylaxis emergency plan form, although this form can go by different names. This form covers what steps school staff should take in case the child is exposed to an allergen or if he/she exhibits symptoms of a reaction. The American Academy of Pediatrics published this template form for reference. Once submitted, the school nurse typically prepares an Individualized Healthcare Plan (IHP): an internal document that outlines the processes the school should follow in the event the child experiences an allergic reaction. 

Some parents go one step further and request a 504 plan. Section 504 is part of a federal civil rights law that protects individuals with disabilities and health conditions, including life-threatening food allergies. The law applies to all schools and programs that receive financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education (so all public schools and some private schools). A 504 plan lays out how the school should prevent and respond to allergic events. If a 504 plan protocol is not followed, there are several dispute resolution options available for parents. 

To secure a 504 plan, a parent must contact the school district’s 504 coordinator, who works with school officials to determine if the child qualifies. This determination is based in part on medical history, so your doctor may need to provide the school with this information. If the child qualifies, the team will work together to determine what special accommodations and protocols must be followed. 

Notably, if your child has a disability and qualifies for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a separate 504 plan is not necessary. The child’s food allergy accommodations may be joined under their IEP. Also of note, in some non-religious private schools where 504 plans do not apply, parents may rely on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure that the school implements a food allergy management plan for the child. 

School Policy Options

Since there are no national standards for food allergy protocols, policies vary widely between schools. 

According to a recent study surveying school nurses across the country, the most frequently reported policies include: training school staff to respond to allergic reactions and anaphylaxis, using epinephrine autoinjectors, and managing for cross-contact in cafeterias. Other policies commonly implemented include: community food allergy awareness events, designated lunch areas for children with food allergies, and food guidelines for classroom celebrations.

The least frequently reported policies were: allergen labeling information in cafeterias, food management policies for after-school activities, and school-provided stock epinephrine for field trips and off-campus outings. In light of the differences between school policies, parents should understand their school’s protocols before developing their child’s plan.

Words of Wisdom

Finally, we talked with a few food allergy parents in different school districts and asked them to share a few words of wisdom on these management plans:

- “Plans may be different within the same school system—as your child goes from elementary to middle to high school, you will want to revisit your plan. For example, once a child moves to a different school building, new protocols may be appropriate. Older children may also be allowed to self-carry epinephrine or antihistamines.”

- “Make sure your plan or school policies cover transportation to and from school if your child rides the school bus.”

- “Think about after-school plans for your older child, as middle and high school students often have plans with friends after school. For example: can they store their medicine in a school locker during the day–even if the school doesn’t allow self-carry–so that they are prepared to go to a friend’s house or activity directly after?”

We hope this rundown of plan options, food allergy management policies, and parenting wisdom helps you to better advocate for your child’s food allergy needs!

-      Susannah and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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