Why and How to Prevent Food Cross-Contamination?
While there is no cure for allergic disorders, the only way to prevent the symptoms is to prevent exposure to the allergens. Thus, if you have a food allergy, you will need to eliminate the foods you are allergic to from your diet. However, avoiding food allergens can be quite challenging, mostly to the risk of accidental exposure by virtue of a phenomenon known as cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is a result of a contact between allergenic and allergen-free food products.
Cross-contamination may occur at any stage of working with food, from preparation of the ingredients and cooking to storage and serving. Even minimum contact is enough for a food allergen to contaminate other foods. For instance, boiling gluten-free pasta and regular pasta in the same pot or using the same toaster for making regular and wheat-free slices of toast may lead to an allergic reaction in people with wheat (gluten) allergy; while peanut allergy symptoms can develop when using a knife whose surface contains even trace amounts of peanut butter.
In addition, a lot of manufacturers that make food products with tree nuts use the same manufacturing line for processing other foods. Therefore, it is an obligation for such companies to put a special warning on a product label, if it might contain traces of nuts – one of the most common food allergens.
The risk for cross-contamination is not limited to specific places, it may happen anywhere, including your home, restaurants, school and manufacturing facilities. If you have a food allergy, eating (or touching) a contaminated food may cause a life-threatening allergic reaction. In this article, you will find some guidelines to reduce the risk of accidental exposure.
Cross-Contamination in Packaged Food Products
Experts recommend that you always read the labels on food products you are about to purchase. Apart from the ingredients list, pay attention to any manufacturing details mentioned on the label.
Statements such as “might contain traces of nuts” or “process in a facility also manufacturing wheat” indicate the risk of cross-contamination, meaning that these products are not recommended for people with food allergies or sensitivities. If you have any doubts concerning the information provided on the product label or you can’t find it, you can always contact the manufacturer via telephone number and ask what you need to know.
Cross-Contamination in Your Own Home
To avoid cross-contamination in your own house, you shouldn’t keep any food allergens in there. If you have a severe food allergy with a high risk of an anaphylactic reaction, it’s most likely that your family members avoid bringing or eating foods you are allergic to in the house.
However, if you do have allergenic food products in your home, don’t get them close to preparation and serving areas. Labeling these items with allergy warning stickers can be a good idea, so that all your family members could know where to put and keep these foods. Make sure to inform your friends, grandparents or babysitters about the foods you have an allergy to, as well.
Mark special, should-be allergy-friendly food preparation areas, and utensils. All the surfaces touching the food should be cleaned before and after food preparation. “Dangerous” foods shouldn’t be brought anywhere into the house but kitchen and should be eaten in specific areas of the kitchen. Allergenic foods that are difficult to clean and likely to leave trace allergens on various surfaces should be avoided.
Cross-Contamination in Restaurant Facilities
For people with food allergies, eating at restaurants may be quite challenging, because of the risk for cross-contamination. Choose a restaurant that is aware about food allergies and related risks. Communicating your allergy needs to a manager is very important to prevent the risk of emergency.
However, cross-contamination remains common in restaurants, both large and small. The food there is most commonly contaminated through frying oil, grills and woks, which is why you are better off avoiding fried foods. Besides, when the facility is busy, it’s hard to follow all safe practices. Experts recommend that you rather choose chain restaurants (e.g. Olive Garden), since those tend to have more strict food safety policies. Never hesitate to ask questions about the process of food preparation. Remember that your life might depend on how well you communicate your needs to your server.
If you get a wrong meal (if it contains food allergens), make sure the restaurant staff gets you a totally new one. Removing the allergenic food from the meal will not turn it safe for an allergic person. Other ingredients will already be contaminated, meaning the meal is not acceptable.
Using the same utensils (such as spoons, scoops or serving tongs) for allergenic and allergy-free food also leads to contamination. People with allergies should avoid buffet-style restaurants, salad bars and ice cream parlors, since these are especially associated with a high risk of cross-contamination.
More Tips to Avoid Cross-Contamination
As mentioned earlier, you should wash all the counter surfaces, cutting boards, knives and spoons you use during food preparation, with hot and soapy water. When buying a cutting board, remember that it is safer to use plastic ones. Plastic boards are easier to clean than those made of wood, and you can clean them in dishwasher.
Common food allergens like nuts and seeds require a particular caution, since they may often leave traces on plates, tables, cutting boards, etc. Make sure to clean these surfaces with household cleaning products to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
Cross-contamination often occurs in bulk food bins, where the scoops are shared between items. Avoid getting food from these bulks, unless you are sure that all the food safety rules are followed.
Bagel and meat slicing machines are also a common source of cross-contamination. Inform the staff at the counter about your food allergy and ask them to change their gloves and clean the machine before slicing your food.
Finally, don’t share utensils and cups with other, if you have a food allergy, to prevent cross-contamination. Some people may develop a life-threatening reaction after a simply touching an allergen by the hand, face or lips.