You and your child are out to lunch. When you receive her “plain” burger, you open the wrapper to check it. There it is… cheesy fingerprints on the wrapper. I handed it back and said they must make a new plain burger and cannot “just” take the cheese off. This is a typical example of cross contact. Cross contact can and does happen in a split second. You must stay diligent and engaged at all times.
A few examples include:
- A counter that wasn’t properly cleaned
- Using the same utensil to cut both your sandwich with cheese and another without cheese
- Stirring items on the stove with the same spoon
- Using wood cutting boards
- Ordering from deli’s
- Eating at buffets
How does cross contamination differ from cross contact? What are the greatest risks? How do reduce those risks?
Cross Contamination vs. Cross Contact
The Food Allergy Network adopted “cross contact” to differentiate from cross contamination.
Cross Contamination is the process by which bacteria or other microorganisms are unintentionally transferred from one substance or object to another, with harmful effects.
According to the Food Allergy Network, “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” (Source). These amounts are so small that they usually can’t be seen.
When dealing with food allergies, cross contact can result in a more serious and immediate reaction, a potentially fatal reaction. Foods that cause allergic reactions are called allergens. Allergic reactions usually occur after your child eats or touches a food that has come in contact with an allergen.
What are the risks for cross contact the greatest?
Cross contact can happen when you least expect it, therefore, you can never let your guard down!
The biggest risk for cross contact is when venturing outside your home! Maybe it is at a birthday party, a family picnic, out to dinner or just stopping by the deli counter to pick up a quick salad. Each of these situations has very specific inherent dangers.
At the deli, the trays that look beautiful first thing in the morning but as the day goes on and employees get busier and busier, the same spoon may have been used to scoop American potato salad and then bean salad. As a result, the bean salad is now cross contaminated with potato salad. This may have happened throughout the course of the day and you never would have known until the product was eaten and caused an allergic reaction. The same rules and concerns apply to salad bars and buffets no matter what! It could be a $6.99 salad bar or a $26.99 buffet. Cross contact is the inadvertent contamination of an allergen-free product.
Another danger is when a portion of the salad drops off the spoon onto an otherwise safe salad as the employee is filling the order.
Meat slicers are another concern. They are rarely cleaned between types of meat being sliced, much less slicing cheese. Some deli meats do contain dairy and will leave a residue on the slicer. Your best plan of defense is to call ahead and request that your order be sliced first thing in the morning before other allergens have contaminated the slicer and blades.
Another tremendous risk is attending family get togethers whether a birthday party, holiday celebration, maybe a picnic, or just a visit. You must stay vigilant!
When venturing outside the house, the best rule of thumb is if you didn’t actually see the dish being prepared, don’t know who prepared it or trust the person to have consciously taken all the precautions, do not eat it. The risk is too great!
You may want to volunteer to bring a “safe” dish to pass. Be the first person it take a scoop or two so your child will have something “safe” to eat. You can also help plan the menu so you could bring a safe look-alike meal. Prepare a meal for you to heat and serve your child at dinner time. Or eat before you go to party and then just focus on the fun and creating memories rather than focusing on the food.
A third area of concern is eating out, whether it is at a restaurant or fast food establishment. The first and most important word of advice is to be your child’s advocate! Don’t be afraid to ask questions, talk to the manager and chef when making reservations at a restaurant, ask when is the best time to schedule, when is it slowest so your order can be given the attention it deserves and ultimately what you are paying for.
The chances of cross-contact are endless at restaurants. You really must be assured that your server understands the allergy and associated issues, the manager should be involved and the chefs must be alerted. Be sure you are confident that they understand the issues you are concerned about. They must read all ingredients even if they have used that brand for years. Ingredients change without notice. The packaging may still look the same but it is always worth reading the ingredients again. You should be made to feel at ease. If not, make a reservation at another restaurant that is willing to work with you.
Fast food restaurants and bars offer a separate set of issues. The use of deep fryers is perhaps the biggest concern. The oil in deep fryers is not changed often and generally all types of deep fried foods are put into the same deep fryer. That means that French fries, that would be considered safe after reading the ingredients, may be fried with the cheese curds, jalapeno poppers, mozzarella sticks etc. It is not an option for those needing to or choosing to avoid dairy.
At fast food restaurants, you have the right to request that employees change their gloves before serving you. You have the right to protect you and your child.
It is advisable that you watch what utensils the fast food employee is using to serve your food. Ask that they get a clean spoon, watch that the cutting board is clean, the trays are clean and free from crumbs, stickiness and dried spills.
How to Reduce the Risk for Cross Contact in the Home
A few suggestions for your home are:
- Everyone in the household as well as babysitters, friends, relatives should be aware of the hidden dangers of cross contact.
- Read all the ingredients every time you purchase a product even if you bought it many times in the past. Ingredients change so often and so does the packaging. You also need to read the ingredients if you are buying a different size of the product.
- Have family members wash their face and hands after eating.
- Try to focus on cooking allergen free foods before you make the rest of the meal to avoid the possibility of cross contact.
- It is best to only allow eating in the kitchen to prevent other rooms in the house from being contaminated with split milk, crumbs, wrappers laying around, old dishes sitting around. Crumbs and traces of allergens could get onto your carpets, furniture, toys and other surfaces.
- For babies, you may want to put a blanket on the floor for them to play on. One that is clean and safe.
- You may need to designate a separate shelf in the refrigerator for allergen free foods. Maybe even a separate shelf in the pantry.
- Make sure your cooking surfaces are clean and sterile. Do not use wood cutting boards because the allergens can be absorbed in the wood. The best option is using plastic or plexiglass cutting boards which can be cleaned and put in the dishwasher. All food preparation supplies must be cleaned with hot, soapy water.
Understanding and avoiding cross contact is so important. It is necessary to take all the precautions, ask the questions and educate those around you.