Cross-Contact: So, That's a Thing?
Last updated: July 2022
My college-aged son has a tree nut allergy. He worked at a movie theater to slowly pay his way through college. My son is VERY careful about tree nut ingredients in desserts. In fact, he will only eat desserts that I have made. I keep them on a cake platter with a glass dome over the top. When he visits, he knows that anything under the glass dome is safe for him to eat.
Those cookies look safe enough!
One night, my son was working at the movie theater, and an employee from a nearby cookie bakery popped in. They said they had run out of ice and wondered if they could borrow a bucket of ice from the theater?
My son told them sure, no problem, so he went to get the ice bucket. As a friendly gesture, the cookie bakery employee returned with their bucket and a plate of various cookies.
He was leery about the cookies and asked the employee if any of the cookies had tree nuts in them? They assured him that there were no tree nuts in the cookies and that they were safe to eat. He looked at the cookies, and they looked safe to him. It was late at night, and he was tired and hungry, so he took a bite.
Experiencing an allergic reaction
And after that single delicious bite...his throat started to burn.
He had 2 epinephrine auto-injectors with him but decided to take Benadryl instead. By the way, that is not what most doctors recommend. They usually advise to "use epi first and epi fast."1
Since he only had a single bite of food that had cross-contact with tree nuts and hadn't consumed actual tree nuts, he experienced a mild reaction. But, he didn't want to drive after taking Benadryl, so he called me to pick him up.
What is cross contact?
I looked up the cookie bakery's menu online. Sure enough, they baked and served cookies containing tree nuts. Although the employee had brought chocolate chip cookies to the theater, there had obviously been cross-contact with allergens.1
According to FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education), cross-contact occurs when a portion of food comes into contact with another food, and their proteins mix. As a result, each food contains unseen amounts of the other food. Even tiny amounts can cause an allergic reaction.2
Advocating for safer food handling
The next day, I spoke to a health inspector at my local health department and told her what had happened. She visited the staff at the cookie bakery to learn more.
At the time, the bakery's employees didn't believe the inspector and had never heard of cross-contact. In fact, they asked, "So, that's like a thing?"
The health inspector assured them that, yes, cross-contact "was a thing" that could cause a severe allergic reaction.
How to mitigate cross-contact
The health inspector instructed the bakery to change their gloves whenever they touched cookies that contained tree nuts. She also informed them to use separate cooking materials when making cookies with tree nuts and without and wash them thoroughly after use. Without these precautions, small amounts of tree nuts can be transferred to products not containing any.
The health inspector then called the bakery manager to explain what had happened. He didn't believe the health inspector, either. So, she had to go through all the information again and send him a copy of the state food safety code.
I'm frustrated that the bakery staff didn't believe the health inspector. To obtain their food handler's permit, in-depth food safety training is required, which includes information about cross-contact. So, why did they appear to have heard about cross-contact for the first time?
Has anyone else had an allergic reaction from cross-contact? How did the restaurant react?
How often do you connect with others who have food allergies?