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On a recent Sunday, my family went to several different restaurants before we gave up on eating out. Why? Like 3 million other Americans, my son, Joel, has a peanut allergy.
According to the Mayo Clinic, allergic reactions to peanuts are the most severe of all food allergies followed by shellfish, fish, tree-nuts and eggs. Peanut allergies are responsible for 80 percent of fatal or near-fatal reactions each year.
Joel had a near-fatal reaction when we were visiting Savannah, Ga., last summer. His blood pressure dropped to 33/17 and he was unconscious by the time we made it to the hospital. He had gone into anaphylaxis. Joel was only 2-years-old at the time, so he could not tell us what was wrong. How Joel was exposed to peanuts will remain a mystery, but we are now equipped with a powerful weapon – knowledge.
In June of 2007, Joel was tested for food allergies because of the severe eczema that covers 90 percent of his body. Blood was used to test for what allergists call “the big four” – peanuts, shellfish, fish and eggs. A skin patch test was conducted for other foods. Joel reacted to peanuts and soy, but nothing else. Our allergist didn’t give us information on the severity of peanut allergies. Nor did our allergist write a prescription for an epi-pen (a pen-shaped device with an injection of epinephrine). We were oblivious to the kind of reaction that was possible from a peanut allergy.
Our lives have changed drastically since last summer. We don’t keep ice cream, cake, chocolate, cookies or chips in the house. We also don’t accept food from friends, co-workers or neighbors. We also read every label at the grocery store before purchasing any products.
Erin, my 11-year-old daughter, has given up a lot for the safety of her little brother. She has to be commended for being so mature about his health condition. As a matter-of-fact, Erin made special trick-or-treat bags for Joel and distributed them to the neighbors so Joel could go trick-or-treating this Halloween. Erin does get to have treats on occasion, but only before Joel is picked up from day care.
Colonial Child Care, where Joel spends his days, has also bent over backward for us. Ren keeps a poster on the wall in the kitchen describing what Joel can and cannot eat. She has even quit serving peanut products to the students in Joel’s class because the cross-contamination could cause him to have a reaction. They keep an epi-pen on hand for emergencies and they all know how to administer it.
Eating out has been the biggest challenge. We know which local restaurants are “Joel friendly.” However, when we are out of town, finding a place to eat is challenging. Our family spent a week in south Georgia last month. We had to call quite a few restaurants before we found one that didn’t have any peanut products. Steak houses are out of the question because most have a bucket of peanuts on the table. Since the peanut allergy is also airborne, Joel could have a reaction by just walking in.
Fast food restaurants are usually forbidden because peanut oil or hydrogenated soy oil, which contains peanut oil, is used to in the fryers. Chicken restaurants are also out for the same reason. Italian restaurants are out as well because most of the sauces are powdered. Powdered sauces usually are made with peanut flour. My husband usually goes in to ask the kitchen manager if they use peanut products because many restaurants don’t post signs. As a matter of fact, most employees are clueless and some have even laughed at us when we ask about peanuts.
The state of New Jersey has passed legislation that restaurants have to post signs no smaller than eight inches to indicate whether or not they serve food with peanuts due to the severity of the reaction. Massachusetts is also working on similar legislation.
I beg that our South Carolina law makers do the same.
You can find out more information on food allergies from Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network at http://www.foodallergy.org