Monday, January 26, 2009

Food Recall Article Only Adds to the Confusion

Don't get me wrong--I'm really glad that the Chicago Tribune is following up on their food allergy investigation with stories like this one that talked about how stores are pulling more supposedly "allergen-free" items that are actually filled with an allergen. The latest story that ran Saturday (check the link) talked about gluten-free items that had to be pulled.

Apparently, a customer with celiac disease became nauseated from a contaminated food and it was discovered that the "gluten-free" Hy-Vee brand chicken bites she ate were actually filled with gluten. The brand pulled the item from store shelves, which helped prevent further illness.

From my perspective, there was just one problem with this story. The woman in question was pregnant and her only reported symptom was that she became nauseated after eating. I don't know about you mothers out there, but when I was pregnant, I became nauseated after eating all the time--and not just during those first 3 months.

The "example consumer" given in this article was troubling to me, because even though it is certainly not good that a pregnant woman and her child were exposed to an allergen harmful to the mother, does this story inspire sympathy in the non-allergic? Or does it make us seem, well, a little over the top?

I'm not picking on people with wheat allergies or celiac disease--I know they are no fun and present several challenges. And I know that true wheat allergies are just as severe as nut allergies. But in the case of this Tribune article is some nausea comparable to anaphylaxis, such as can occur with a severe allergic reaction?

Of course anyone with a food allergy or sensitivity should report it and let others -- including companies -- know about it. No one should have to suffer any symptoms at all if they can avoid it. But there is a big difference between life-threatening reactions (or severe G.I. distress, as can occur with celiac disease) and some minor physical discomfort.

Because of the "nature of the beast" the line between the two often gets blurred. And I'm not sure how it can be resolved so that everyone affected gets a fair shake.


The Thrifty Gluten-Free Mom said...

I agree there is big difference between what a celiac goes through and the threat of anaphylaxis and death that goes with nut allergies. But... celiac disease isn't just about digestive discomfort. It is also that the disgestive stuff is the tip of the iceberg. If you are getting gluten, your whole immune system is under attack and that can lead to long term health issues, hospitalizations, immunity problems, rheumatoid arthtritis(sometimes crippling). Everyone reacts in different ways and extremes. Contaminated food marked as gluten free and consumed in large portions can lead to some big problems. If you have a silent celiac like I do, then you don't even know you're exposed until you're in the hospital. So "short term scary threatening" like your child or long term, chronic and sometimes crippling immune system issues that celiac face--both need addressed and respected.

Also, with the pregnant woman issue. My first thought was not poor girl had indigestion. It was wonder what her over-firing immune system was doing to her unborn child's development.

Keep up the good work and keep stirring it up my friend.

Col said...

The woman in the article has celiac disease, which is not an allergy. Please understand that the reaction of celiacs to small quantities of gluten varies widely, and clearly this woman recognized that she had been exposed. Even low levels of exposure over time cause intestinal damage, which can lead to cancer and other complications. Celiac disease is serious business.
I agree, though, that the example consumer was problematic. Her pregnancy should not have been mentioned at all. It's not relevant, just a cheap way to sensationalize the story. I would rather see journalists take the opportunity to educate about celiac disease. "Severe abdominal pain" is just the tip of the iceberg.

Jenny said...

You both illustrate my point exactly...the example given in the story made it too easy to dismiss. Also, Col, I am very aware that celiac disease is not a food allergy. However, my point was that it gets lumped in with those conditions.

I don't claim to be a celiac expert and my aim isn't to "stir the pot" but to point out that the media portrayals of food allergy and sensitivities sometimes do more harm than good...even when the story was supposed to be sympathetic to the people it portrays.

The question isn't "whose allergy or condition is worse" but rather can the public be educated to distinguish between reactions that can cause immediate death, from food sensitivies that have long-term, potentially serious health effects? Your guess is as good as mine.

The Thrifty Gluten-Free Mom said...

We are pioneers in a new frontier. Just a few years ago doctors were dismissing celiacs and the gluten intolerant as neurotic hypochrondriacs and some parts of society still see it that way. Reporters sometimes perpetuate that feeling or send wrong messages or misguided info. It's up to people like us to put a face on it and explain it and educate, because we live it everyday. We have to be the counterpoint to even well-meaning journalists and keep showing up everyday so people understand how dangerous nut allergies are and how debilitating celiac disease can be. We have to be the example, since they provide such lame ones. I think it must be harder for the nut allergy because it isn't a matter of the person avoiding nuts. Nut allergy sufferers are affected by others around them as well. Almost like second-hand smoke, but with immediate and sometimes deadly effects.

Jenny said...

Hi Wendy,

You're right. We all need to join forces. You're doing a great job and I admire you!

I appreciate your comments and support and also the way you shed light on an issue (celiac disease) that I am not as familiar with.

More power to all of us who try to tell the public about these things!

Jenny said...

This comment came in from "Anonymous" and for some reason couldn't be posted. So I'm including it here:

"My daughter has severe nut and gluten & dairy allergies. This post has shown me that what i need is a multi-allergic blog to find support--comfort even."

I would like to respond to this because after reading some of these comments and my original post, I believe my intentions were miscontrued. I find myself in a "don't shoot the messenger" situation.

My problem with the article I cited wasn't that celiacs are frivolous. I would have been just as upset if the article discussed "nut-free" foods that had to be pulled because a nut-allergic individual was reported as experiencing hives. That's not going to convince the general public that foods need to be pulled from shelves--sad, but true.

The example of a pregnant woman having nausea (a common enough occurence from most people's understanding) did nothing to further the idea that certain foods can be dangerous to people with intolerances, diseases or allergies. Who was the author of this story speaking to? People with these conditions are aware of the dangers, presumably the general public is not. Were they more sympathetic after reading that story and the given example, or less? I believe, because of the way the story was presented, that it would be less. And that's what bugged me. A perfectly good opportunity in the media was wasted.

I am living life as a mother trying to convince people that ingesting nuts could cause my child's death within minutes. That's not always been an easy task and one reason I began this blog. Other people have other issues they need to address. The two don't have to be mutually exclusive but in any discourse, disagreements will arise. People with food-related conditions are not monolithic, any more than any other diverse population.