Holidays with Food Allergies - How to Accommodate

2017 Nov 16th

It’s that time of year again - the holiday season. For most, that signifies a season of merriment that includes events at school, at work, and in the community. Events like dinners, potlucks, and the sharing of gifts, drinks and food with family and friends are plentiful.

For those with food allergies, it’s often a season of anxiety, stress, extra planning, and extra cooking and baking. I know that for myself, events aren’t really enjoyed but simply “made through”. I’m sure many allergy parents feel the same way. It’s not that we don’t want to enjoy the holidays and the wonderful events that take place, it just seems that this time of year, everywhere we look is food. I no longer look at food as a delicious (and previously my most favourite!) part of an event; I look at it with discerning and terrified eyes as it has the potential to send my son to the ER.

Most people think that if the food doesn’t contain the allergen (in our case, peanuts) then it’s perfectly okay and they don’t understand why I’m always on high alert. Cross-contact is a huge worry. It’s the invisible poison. Even when an allergic person doesn’t ingest the food directly, it can still be of risk to them, especially younger children and toddlers who often put their fingers in their mouths. Those cookies that were eaten could have contaminated door handles, light switches, tables, etc simply from transfer of proteins on hands.

So what exactly is cross-contact and why is it so worrisome? According to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE): “Cross-contact happens when one food comes into contact with another food and their proteins mix. As a result, each food then contains small amounts of the other food. These amounts are so small that they usually can’t be seen. Cross-contamination usually refers to bacteria or viruses that get on food and make it unsafe to eat. In cross-contamination, cooking the food will lower the chance of a person getting sick. This is not the same with food allergies and cross-contact. Cooking does not remove an allergen from a food nor does it reduce or eliminate the chances of a person with a food allergy having a reaction to the food eaten.”

Even with the best of intentions, most food prepared and served at potlucks, bake sales and holiday gatherings could contain deadly allergens. It’s hard to explain to someone who has baked something at home “safely” that it is still not safe for my son to eat. I’m sure that they washed all utensils and bakeware and read the labels, but I’m just not willing to take that risk. We do not allow our son to eat food made in other's homes with the exception of very few people that we trust. This isn’t meant to hurt their feelings or negate their careful preparation, it’s simply to keep our son safe.

A few examples of cross-contact to keep in mind:

  • Is the kitchen where it was prepared free of the allergen? Likely not. What about restaurants and how are they different than eating homemade goods? Most restaurants do contain allergens. In our family, we stay away from most restaurants and those that we do feel comfortable eating at either don’t have any peanut products on site or they have detailed procedures about preparing allergen free meals. We don’t visit restaurants with Asian cuisine, bakeries unless they are nut-free, restaurants that make unsafe desserts in house, or restaurants that won’t or cannot answer our detailed questions.
  • Is the allergen commonly eaten, prepared and brought into the home? If so, cross-contact will be very literally everywhere.
  • Were all of the ingredients in brand new sealed packages? Likely not. To elaborate on this: Was the same knife or utensil used with an unsafe product also used in the safe one by the baker or someone else in the home? Think about how your items are used, butter is a prime example. That “safe” item is no longer safe.
  • Are allergenic ingredients stored near or above safe ingredients? If so, there is the potential that the safe ingredients were contaminated.
  • Did the baker stop working to answer the phone or do another task and forget to rewash their hands? If so, any allergenic protein they touched has now contaminated the baked items.
  • Did the baker read the label and assume it was ok? Most times, this is sufficient. However, because “may contain” labelling is not required in Canada or the USA, the item may be made on shared lines with allergens. Many allergic families are strictly label readers and this would be ok; however, many allergic families do call companies before they use any product. This varies greatly and can depend on the allergic family’s comfort level or allergy severity, so please ask.

If you are preparing food and are not sure if the item is safe for allergic individuals, simply state that. Most food allergic families appreciate the honesty.

Prime examples of events that commonly accept and distribute homemade goods are bake sales, cookie walks and potlucks. Some of these events are even held in schools that call themselves nut aware or dairy aware, etc. By allowing these type of events, that school should no longer be stating that they are nut aware (or any other allergens they may exclude). Often, these events take place after school hours; however, that still doesn’t make them okay.

In 2016, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) added severe food allergies, specifically mentioning nut allergies, to their policy.

  • What does this mean for public spaces, such as schools, workplaces, libraries, and recreation spaces? It means that severe food allergies must be accommodated, just as those in wheelchairs are required to have ramps and/or elevators, to the point of undue hardship. Food provided must be completely allergen free as requested, be that peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, egg, soy, etc.
  • What is undue hardship? A fellow allergy mom and I recently petitioned our local council to make local recreation spaces nut aware. Making the spaces nut aware in this case meant removing nut items from vending machines and the coffee shop as well as placing signage asking that people not bring nuts or nut products into the building. A question that came up through the discussion period was undue hardship. Had the petition also included making the facilities diary free, the council could have denied the request stating that the coffee shop would be affected by undue hardship as dairy is a common ingredient for them. Substitutes for allergens need to be considered before claiming undue hardship. In most instances, substitutes for the allergens are a simple switch as there are so many on the market. For example, a library gingerbread event can easily source cookies and decorations free of most of the top 12 allergens.

I feel it is our job as allergy parents to ensure that public spaces start following this policy. Many public spaces are simply unaware that this new addition to the OHRC policy exists. Until the food allergy community begins to make it more well known, accommodations won’t occur. When your school or library or recreation centre is hosting an event with food, ask them about allergies. Share with them this policy and ask how you can work with them to make the event safe. Most spaces are willing to make events and spaces inclusive to all. If you find an organization that is completely unwilling to accommodate, the staff and lawyers at the OHRC are very helpful in assisting you and explaining what accommodations you can expect in each specific instance. If accommodations are still not made, you can file against the organization to make them accommodate. Obviously, you may not want to go that route as it is a last resort. Hopefully, by simply opening the lines of communication with the organization, appropriate accommodations will be made to make the event or space inclusive. 

I've spoken with many organizations about this policy and most were not aware and actually thanked me for providing the information. Other organizations that were not as open were at least willing to consider accommodations. Most organizations that do not fall under this policy are not always as willing to accommodate, but making them aware and providing information is a great first step. 

Now I know some of you are thinking why fight this fight? We just bring our own food to public events and that’s ok. We shouldn’t make a big deal because our children have to learn to live in the real world and it’s not fair to ask others to accommodate. I disagree, fight the fight, but in a good way, through education. This is the real world, it’s changing and it starts with policies like that of the OHRC. Workplaces are also required to accommodate so when our children get to that stage, hopefully this policy will be well known and they won’t even have to ask for accommodations, they will already be in place. Food allergies are invisible, does that mean that they shouldn’t be accommodated just as a wheelchair ramp is an accommodation? No, invisibility doesn’t mean unimportant, it just means we need to make it it known. Be an advocate - education and knowledge is key to change.