Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Food Allergies, Cross-Contact and "Top Chef Desserts"

Yep, Top Chef is in my sights again, but this time as a lesson about cross-contact and how little it seems to be understood by not only the general public but by chefs. Did any of you see last week's "Top Chef Desserts" episode? It was "Restaurant Wars" (in this case, Bakery Wars) in which the cheftestants created a makeshift bakery for one day and then competed with their dishes.

Obviously, there were peanuts and tree nuts galore in these dishes. However, at one point, a "customer" came in and said he was allergic to nuts. One of the pastry chefs then said he would make a "safe" treat for this customer and served him one. Now, they didn't show what precautions they took, if any, but with all the peanuts and tree nuts swirling around the kitchen, they should not have served this customer. Not if he had a true nut allergy. The cross-contact risk is too high and the cheftestants were under an extreme time limit.

Cross-contact is simultaneously one of the most important and most difficult aspects of food allergies to explain to others. People will say "You can have this--it doesn't have nuts in it." How many times have you heard this? I know I've heard it more times than I can count and so has my daughter.

Being responsible about a severe food allergy is about more than ingredients. The environment in which food is prepared is just as important. So is the placement of the items once baked. Take a "nut-free" cookie baked in a "nut-free" facility and then put it on a bakery display next to hazelnut cake and peanut butter cups. Now the "nut-free" cookie is unsafe due to possible cross-contact.

Bake a plain vanilla cake in a small kitchen that just featured a peanut butter cupcake. The plain vanilla cake may be harboring peanut matter and is not "safe" for those with a nut allergy.

Take a plain Butterball turkey and stuff it with cornbread pecan stuffing and that plain turkey is now unsafe for someone with a nut allergy. Thanksgiving is a whole other can of worms that I will address in future posts. But since so many of us will be explaining cross-contact in the coming weeks, I couldn't resist throwing it in here now.

Cross-contact is the reason for food labels that say "may contain peanuts." It's the reason for companies choosing to create and label foods "made in a nut-free facility." Cross-contact is real and not to be downplayed.

I've heard Chef Ming Tsai talk about his food allergy-friendly restaurant Blue Ginger and how he tells his chefs to treat any food allergens like they are "raw chicken." When dealing with raw chicken you change cutting boards and utensils and wash your hands frequently or risk salmonella. I think the Raw Chicken Analogy is as good as any I've ever heard. Feel free to use it.

The main thing about cross-contact is that if you live with a severe food allergy or care for someone who does, you can't let others lack of understanding about it get in the way of safety. I know people can get offended if you tell them that you or your child can't partake of their particular foods that "don't have nuts in it."

Think of raw chicken. And then skip the food in question with a thank you and a smile.


Melinda said...

Thank you for this article. We're heading into our first holiday season since becoming food allergy parents, and cross contamination issues are a big worry. Family members coming to Thanksgiving dinner bring a dish to share, and I'm anticipating the "it doesn't contain nuts" comments. This article will help me deal with them better - thanks!

Jenny said...

Melinda, Thanks for your comments. I'm thrilled if I can help anyone deal with this stuff. You made my day!


Lindsay said...

Oh Jenny! I hear ya! :) I'm a fan of the Food Network on facebook, and a couple days ago, another fan mentioned that she noticed so many of the chefs taste the food on the spoon, and then put it back in the pot, or lick their finger and then continue on, touching other food without washing their hands, etc. She thought it was really gross, and although she was bothered by the "germiness" of the situation, I immediately thought of cross-contamination for people like me with allergies. When professional chefs do this on tv, it makes me wonder what's happening in the real restaurant kitchens.

Liz said...

Last year at a family get together on Christmas eve, someone set out a dish of a trail mix type thing. It had peanuts in it. When asked by my mother in law, what possessed her to do that (my parents-in-law have been amazing with the food allergy btw) she said that it was no different than her mother who was a diabetic having a dish with a little sugar in it. I was so shocked. I couldn't believe it and even thought she was making a joke. Later, I found out that she honestly just thought you take a medication for food allergies just like you would take zyrtek for seasonal allergies. I'm amazed and stunned by how little people know about food allergies. The raw chicken thing is a great idea, and while that's what we practice, I've never made that connection before. That will definitely make explaining things a little easier this holiday season. Thank you! I always enjoy your blog.

Anonymous said...

I find cross contamination to be difficult to explain and deal with. People don't get it. I don't watch this show, but this was probably staged. I never get my daughter (pn & tn allergy) any type of dessert from a restaurant or bakery. There's too many nuts in the different desserts and if they are cutting with the same knife, way too risky.

Speaking of this, on Cake Boss recently he had to make a pb&J cake for a school party. The teacher said, there's one kid with a peanut allergy, he said, oh sure I can make him/her their own jelly cake. No he can't, there's nuts all over his bakery. I went there a few years ago and asked about getting cake. They said no, they couldn't guarantee that it wouldn't come in contact with nuts from other products, they said they have such a large amount of different foods and so many different people working there. But yet for the show, it was no big deal!!. What got me about this particular episode was were the parents of that child going to allow them to eat this jelly cake??


Anonymous said...

My daughters allergist said that there was a study out there that said that the packages that state "may contain" do in fact contain enough of the allergen in 20% of the products that the study tested. It is too bad that people's homemade goodies didn't carry the same warning! Instead we avoid other people's baked goods.

Paisley said...

I like Chef Tsai on the food network, but I just checked out his website-I had no idea he was so allergy-friendly! Now I really am a fan :)

Anonymous said...

I thought the same thing when I saw Top Chef last week and was wondering when it was going to pop up on the nut-blogs! lol! I was surprised that someone w/a true nut allergy would even participate in something like that w/all the nuts around in the first place!

I like the raw chicken analogy--it's perfect!!! Will definitely be using that one soon!

Hayley Flott owner of Flott Fitness said...

Jenny, thanks for the great post. My husband is an Executive Chef in a major hotel and has implemented an allergy safety program. The way a kitchen deals with cross contamination totally depends on how the Executive Chef sees this issue. It is a mindset that must be monitored on a daily basis. If you are going to a new restaurant, ask to talk to the Executive Chef about how they deal with cross contamination and what nut products they have in the kitchen. If the Chef is unwilling to speak to you, do not eat in that restaurant.

Angela said...

Thanks for such a wonderful article. My 3yr old is also peanut allergic and trying to explain cross contamination is the hardest thing to convey. I love the chicken reference and will be using it from now on.

Jenny said...

Thanks for chiming in, everybody. It looks like I will have to talk about this topic more!

Anonymous, I did not see the Cake Boss episode but I do watch that show on occasion. That is really interesting that Buddy said he'd make a "nut-free" cake for the show but when you visited the bakery, they told you no way. I would agree--you can't guarantee nut-free in a regular bakery.