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Food allergies: A serious look

Published:Thursday | April 8, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Epipens (epinephrine) - one in a case, the other not - to be taken when one's throat closes during anaphylaxis. - Contributed


The area where you prepare any seafood should be kept for this purpose only. All the chopping boards, mixing bowls, knives, and so on, used for fish and shellfish, should be kept separate, and be thoroughly cleaned after use. If an order comes in from someone who is allergic to seafood, then whoever prepares their meal should not go near seafood during the preparation. Their hands must also be clean. It is imperative for those who are handling a lobster, and such, to wash their hands with soap and water right after the fact, even if they are not dealing with anyone who has allergies. Cross contamination of foods, allergies or not, should be avoided at all costs. It's part of the food hygiene laws, and food allergies are a serious matter.

Food Allergy Awareness Week is May 9-15.

Food allergies: A serious look

"I can't eat shrimp. I'm allergic to it. I won't have the special fried rice thank you," said my brother to the waitress in a Chinese restaurant.

"It's OK," she said, "we take shrimp out."

This, of course, was not going to be OK. You see, when someone is allergic to a food, it means they cannot eat anything that has been contaminated by said food. So no, it certainly would not be fine to remove the shrimp and serve the rice to my brother, who is allergic to shellfish.

The allergy to shellfish is quite common in Jamaica, in both adults and children. If challenged on the spot, I could name at least 20 friends (three in my immediate family) who have an allergy to shellfish, half of whom are also allergic to fish.

Allergies are dire, causing anaphylactic reactions that range from tingling sensations on the tongue, hives, sudden warmth and wheezing, to the swelling of the throat and drop in blood pressure. This can occur within minutes of eating the food, or even two hours after consumption. It is frightening, and often life-threatening. Antihistamines can help some people, but if your throat closes, the only thing which will open it up is epinephrine.

Not available in ja

Epinephrine can reverse the symptoms caused by allergic reactions, and is responsible for saving many people's lives, including my own. However, epinephrine does not miraculously appear out of nowhere, nor is it available in Jamaican pharmacies. I bring mine into the island from the United States of America, or the United Kingdom. It comes in the form of an auto-injector, and is called an EpiPen. I carry two of these around with me always. I left the house without them once, and I turned back as soon as I realised. They are that important.

While it is the responsibility of the people with food allergies to avoid the culprits, it is appreciated if restaurants can accommodate us. However, it is wiser, if you cannot eat seafood, to stay away from fish and Thai restaurants. I mention the latter because many Thai dishes, including ones with meat, are seasoned with Nam Pla, which is fish sauce. Of course, there is barely one eatery in Jamaica that does not have some form of seafood in its kitchen. Even coffee shops and delis usually have smoked marlin.

So what can chefs and restaurant staff do to welcome and support such sufferers? If you feel that you are unable to ensure that there are no contaminations in a meal ordered by someone with an allergy, then you must advise the customer that he or she may not eat there. If you'd like to keep their business, remember that one allergic person in a table of eight will dictate where the party should dine, then here's what you can do (see tips above).