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Cross-Contact or Cross-Contamination: What’s the Difference?

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I’ll be honest with you: distinguishing between cross-contact and cross-contamination used to throw me off. Many people in the food allergy community (my past-self included) often mistakenly use the terms interchangeably.  

The confusion is so widespread that even food manufacturers and allergists mix up the two. In fairness, cross-contact is a new(ish) term, so some have gotten into the habit of labeling everything involving inadvertent food exposure as cross-contamination. “I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always use the terms correctly,” says allergist Dr. Jordan Scott. “Many of us were trained to use cross-contamination to refer to allergens inadvertently getting into another food source.”

To help clear up some of the confusion, we’re breaking down the difference between the two terms in this post.

Let’s start with some examples.

Cross-contact: This occurs when a food allergen in one food (let’s say milk protein in cheese) touches another food (let’s say a hamburger), and their proteins mix, transferring the allergen from one food to another. These amounts are often so small that they can’t be seen!

In this example, let’s assume I have a severe milk allergy. If the cheese touches the burger, cross-contact has occurred. Even if the cheese is removed from the burger, trace amounts of the milk allergen likely remain on the burger making it unsafe to eat and posing the risk of an allergic reaction.

It’s important to note that most food proteins (with few exceptions, like heat labile proteins) CANNOT be cooked out of foods, no matter how high the temperature. When our daughter underwent oral immunotherapy for her peanut allergy, we were given the option to bake the peanut flour into muffins for her to consume. We were told that the high oven temperature would not affect the protein structure of the peanut flour.

Cross-contamination: Cross-contamination occurs when a bacteria or virus is unintentionally transferred from one food product to another, making the food unsafe. The key mark of distinction is that cross-contamination generally refers to food contamination, not food allergens.

A couple examples: you cut raw chicken on a cutting board before you put it on the grill. You then cut peppers on that same cutting board. The raw chicken juice touches the peppers, therefore posing a risk for bacteria. Or say you purchase a cantaloupe that unknowingly has listeria. The knife used to dice up the melon is now a vehicle for cross-contamination. Unlike cross-contact, properly cooking contaminated foods generally CAN eliminate the food-borne offender.

Is it all making sense now? In short, when referring to food allergens, use cross-contact, and when referring to food-borne bacteria or viruses, use cross-contamination. Easy peasy.

We hope our explanation cleared up any confusion. Now that you’re a cross-contact pro, here’s a guide with tips on how to avoid cross-contact.

Want to discuss this topic further? Still confused? Feel free to reach out to me at mnohe@allergyamulet.com. I’m always game for a good food allergy chat!  :)

-       Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team

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Whole Foods for Thought: The Debate Over Quality Versus Quantity

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You’ve probably heard by now that Amazon bought Whole Foods. The latter’s shareholders recently approved the transaction, and assuming regulators sign off on the deal, the creators of Man in the High Castle and the sellers of the Squatty Potty will now be joining you at the dinner table. Bon appetite :)

On the one hand, the deal is expected to make shopping at Whole Foods more affordable. Awesome! Consumers are already seeing markdowns on several food items including butter, bananas, and eggs. But there’s one nagging question out there that looms large: where would that money otherwise have gone? To the farmers? To its employees? And how will Amazon’s takeover impact the quality of food and the values that Whole Foods has stood by all these years?

At Allergy Amulet, we care about food quality and a healthy work environment. We also care about high-quality food being accessible and affordable to everyone! So naturally, we’ve been following this deal closely. 

According to Jeff Wilke, CEO of Amazon’s worldwide consumer business, “[e]verybody should be able to eat Whole Foods Market quality—we will lower prices without compromising Whole Foods Market’s long-held commitment to the highest standards.” That’s all well and good, but there’s one problem with that statement: the inverse relationship between quality and quantity.

California’s first organic strawberry farmer, Jim Cochran, confronted this dilemma at his farm. To satisfy increasing demand for his strawberries at Whole Foods, Jim expanded his farm from four to 24 aces. Recognizing the problem between increased yield and berry quality, he scaled back to 12 acres to focus on quality over quantity.

Is it possible to produce high-quality strawberries on a massive scale?

Here’s an interesting fact: Americans spend less on food than people in any other country in the world. Indeed, most countries spend over 10 percent of their incomes on food, whereas Americans spend closer to 6%. Why is our food so cheap?

As Michael Pollan points out in Omnivores Dilemma, food is cheap because the true costs have been externalized—we still pay them, but instead of paying at the register, we pay in the form of rising obesity rates, cheap labor, and lax environmental and safety regulations. Consider too that between 1995 and 2010, the American taxpayers gave the agriculture industry roughly $262 billion in subsidies. This begs the question: is our food really that cheap?

Let’s say Amazon decides not to compromise on quality: who then is getting the short end of the stick with the lower price tag? There is some concern that the Whole Foods culture and workplace environment will soon change with Amazon in charge. After all, Whole Foods salaries average around $18 an hour, whereas Amazon pays on average $12 an hour (a figure below the national average). Amazon also has a reputation for grueling work conditions at its warehouses, and reports of intense surveillance and monitoring of its employees—another cause for concern.

At Allergy Amulet, our work lies at the intersection of food and health. We care about food quality and safety; we also appreciate that good food often costs more, and is not accessible to many Americans. For this reason, the conversation around food quality is an important one. Everyone deserves high-quality, nutritious food, but the question stands: how do we make that food affordable to everyone without compromising on quality or forfeiting the values underpinning good food like well-paid farmers, safe working conditions, humane animal treatment, and sustainable farming practices?

Hopefully, Amazon has the answer.

- Abi and the Allergy Amulet Team

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