Monday, June 7, 2010

Allergic Reactions, or Reactive Allergies?

I grew up taking allergies seriously before this seemingly recent dawn of peanut and wheat allergies. My mother cannot eats eggs in even the slightest amount (raw or cooked) and my sister cannot ingest chickpeas in any of their variations (posing a particularly inconvenient problem for our trips to India or Indian restaurants, since the popular ingredient of graham flour is derived from the chickpea itself). Both allergies are severe and have required medical care in the past. The episodes are always frightening; only after the reaction is quelled, do we consider how we could have determined the drink's rim had been dipped in egg whites to help affix its sugar, or how we could have prevented a mischievous baby from sticking chana dal up her nose.

All this is to say, I take allergy precautions rather seriously and always pity others when I hear what foods they must avoid. My own system is unfamiliar with any such restrictions, except perhaps for street food vendors in India, which I stubbornly patronize (there was an incident in 1987 where my parents tried to convince me I was allergic to popsicles, but I think we can all see where that was going). But its my experience working with small children in daycares and summercamps, as well as my exposure to nephews from my partner's side of the family, that sadly suggests food allergies are on the rise.

It could very well be the case that I'm more aware of restrictions as an older, more mature adult (who also loves to cook for guests and doesn't want to incur a lawsuit), but recent research suggests that modernity might be responsible for making food more dangerous to consume. One explanation blames technological inventions such as the refrigerator--before people could store their foods for months on end, they had to eat foods seasonally. Today, the continuous exposure to certain foods may build up the body's resistance.

Another explanation that blames modern inventions focuses on the increase in environmental pollutants. If we ingest foods that have particles from car fumes attached to them, for instance, our bodies might not recognize the substances as real food and may try to reject them.

Some public figures, like Chef Ming Tsai of 'Blue Ginger' fame, believe that the recent rise in allergies should be understood as a public health concern. Tsai spent years advocating for legislation in Massachusetts that would require restaurants to take certain precautions for the health and safety of its patrons. As of January 1, 2010, Senate bill 2701 requires all MA restaurants to take certain precautions for the health and safety of its patrons. The precautions include watching a video on food allergies and hanging informational posters in the kitchen made by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN).

These measures are obviously not difficult--after all, how hard is it really to simply watch a video or hang a poster? The precaution that interests me most is the one that requires menus to include a statement that informs the customer to notify the wait staff of any allergies. I'm most intrigued by this particular precaution because it frames the issue under the rubric of customer rights, instead of health and safety in the kitchen.

Tsai's interest in customer rights stems from his own son's experience with allergies. Before the age of 6, his son was allergic to soy, wheat, dairy, shellfish, eggs, tree nuts, and peanuts (7 of the 8 major food allergies, his exception being fish). Luckily, he's outgrown most of his allergies, except for nuts, but Tsai remembers how difficult it was in the earlier years and he wants to reach out to other people who might feel the same frustration dining in restaurants.

Right now MA is the only state that has passed such legislation and New Jersey is the only other state with similar legislation pending, but Tsai and other advocates hope that it will quickly spread. We don't have to worry that our favorite restaurants will no longer cook with shellfish or eggs should a customer with those allergies frequent the establishment. Instead it should be understood as the educational campaign that it really is--a campaign that says restaurants should know emergency rooms across the country see 30,000 cases of food allergies every year, with 150 of them ending in fatality; a campaign that also says customers have the right to inform staff of allergies and then, because the restaurant has its own right to say that the allergies are impossible to accommodate, can turn around and vote where to eat with their feet.

1 comment:

Raj Ajinkya said...

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