When going to a kids’ party can be a matter of life or death

CROYDON COMMENTARY: The coroner’s inquest into the death of a teenager from eating a sandwich may have raised broader public awareness of food allergies, but as Croydon mum of two KIRSTIE SMITH (pictured right) writes, it has only served to underline the constant danger faced by some families

Allergies.  They are everywhere these days.

Gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free… the list of what is, or is not, safe to eat is endless. When it affects your family, it’s hard work.

Both our kids were diagnosed with dairy allergies when they were just a few weeks’ old, tiny babies. Previously, I never really believed in food allergies, I thought they were just fads, for picky eaters if you like. But after seeing the effects on my children and getting a diagnosis, I realised they were very real.

Keeping the kids safe is imperative. I’m “That Woman”, who takes longer than most to do a supermarket shop because I have to read the labels on everything I put in my trolley. Just because I bought it last week, doesn’t mean that it’s still ok today. There’s no complacency as manufacturers often change ingredients or recipes with no warning.

I’m “That Woman” who seems a nervous wreck at kids’ birthday parties when food is being dished on to kids’ plates without any regard for allergies. I’m “That Woman” who has shouted “Noooooo” and made a dive across a room that the Crystal Palace goalkeeper would be proud of to stop my young child eating a sausage roll that another parent has unwittingly given them.

Holidays can be a nightmare. When the kids were toddlers and we went abroad, we took a case in our hand luggage packed full of enough food for them to have three meals a day for a week plus snacks. It had to come with us in case there was nothing at the all-inclusive hotel that they could eat and in case our hold luggage didn’t arrive. Everything we do needs careful planning.

Do you really know all the contents of that sandwich you’re about to eat?

It’s hard to see your child sitting looking at some birthday cake or ice cream that they cannot have at parties. Or when they ask, “Can I have this? Does it contain milk?” before they eat things.

Now at school, our kids’ understanding is better. They are still young, but they can understand that certain food will make them poorly and rarely now do we have screaming tantrums because they can’t have what their friend is eating or do we have to wrestle food off them. It’s tough for us and them, but it makes me proud that they can be so grown up at an early age.

It has got easier though. Due to changes to EU law in 2014, the top 14 allergens now have to be listed on food packaging. But there are exceptions.

Brought in to help small businesses, if food is prepared on the premises the ingredients do not need to be printed on the packaging. The information needs to be available, but this can be by asking staff who can tell customers, or show them a list of ingredients often held in an Allergy Folder.

However, if you’re allergic to something not in the Top 14, it doesn’t have to be listed.

Eating out can be a nightmare.  In some restaurants we’ll ask to see the allergy information and get handed a gluten-free menu (it’s not all about gluten-free). Some restaurants are very good and we’ve learnt which chains we can trust and which we can’t.  And that’s what it all boils down to – trust.

Natasha Ednan-Laperouse’s Pret sandwich was not labelled to show it contained sesame

Recently, Pret a Manager had to provide answers because 15-year-old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse died after eating one of their unlabelled products. Pret has now said they will label their products, even when made on the premises of their branches, but it’s too little, too late. Natasha’s family has been devastated by her death.

While Pret hadn’t broken the law, they had taken advantage of the loophole bought in for the small trader as their products are made on the premises.

Some of those with family members with allergies have decided the best course of action is to always eat at home. Which may be safer, but it is rarely entirely practical.

And it is not fool proof either. Apart from being incredibly restrictive, there’s the dreaded email alerts from Allergy UK which ping into inboxes to advise of mistakes on products, incorrect labelling, or products containing an allergen which is not declared on the packaging. Those who have purchased these products are invited to take them back to stores for a full refund, but of course, often it’s too late and the product has already been consumed and reactions are evident.

This week we’ve encountered queries over food served to our son at school. The information on the online menu stated that a product contained milk, but our son came home from school and told us this was what he’d eaten. The dessert he said he had wasn’t even on the menu, so we have no idea what was in it.

So why was he allowed to have these products?

The school is still looking into it but first responses (after apologising) are that the main course didn’t actually contain milk so it was safe for him to eat.  So how can parents trust what they are being told when they then hear that information provided isn’t accurate?

We are lucky. Our kids’ reactions to consuming milk products are not life-threatening.  They will be uncomfortable for a few days, it’ll affect their tummies, the effect on their behaviour means we have Devil Children, and for one of them eczema will flare up. It’s a headache, but they are not going to die.

How about those parents whose children do have life threatening reactions and require adrenaline auto injectors (AAIs)?

We must all be able to trust information we are given.

Just what is in the party food that your kids are being given?

Some parents of allergy-free children are amazing. They’ll ask about allergies on a party invitation and they’ll get food in especially for play dates. But many others don’t give it a second thought. Why would they? It’s not part of their daily life.

For the young generation just starting school, allergies are likely to be part of all their daily lives. If they don’t personally have an allergy, it’s highly likely they know someone who has, so growing up they will be aware and it will become natural that when they are adults they take allergies into consideration when inviting friends over and going out for meals.

But things are never straightforward.

AAIs for treating life-threatening allergic reactions are currently in short supply.

Information from the Department of Health states this is likely until the end of 2018 and a decision has been made that some batches of AAIs can be used beyond their expiration date. It is therefore imperative that any company that provides food, whether it be the school, the chain of restaurants or the local coffee shop, provides full allergen information that can be trusted.

As we now all know too sadly, mistakes can be deadly.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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