Food labeling problems: Bananas that contain shellfish

Food allergy labeling and laws are confusing and widely misunderstood, including by groups that are leaders in the field.  Here’s the latest scary example:

The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) is probably the leading advocacy group for food allergies in the U.S. On their Facebook page yesterday, FAAN posted a link to a report stating that a new preservative made from shellfish (shrimp and crab shells) has been tested and shown to slow ripening of bananas.  Shellfish are one of the 8 top allergens that must be listed, per federal law, if they are contained as an ingredient in a packaged food.  The report contained no information on the effect of such a preservative made from shellfish on allergic individuals, but there is a high potential for a problem because medical reactions are caused by the allergen’s protein shape and not the food itself. This product is not yet on the market.

On FAAN’s post was the header “Reading labels is important because…”  The implication is that such bananas will have a label. Stated emphatically, this is wrong. Bananas are a “raw agricultural commodity” and not a “packaged food” and are therefore NOT covered by the 2006 FALPCA law.  (Other non-covered items include meats, eggs, restaurant foods, cosmetics, etc.) This means no label is required on whole raw foods. And this is aside from the problem that there is a huge gap in the law regarding cross-contamination and the non-regulation of “May Contain” statements.

The U.S. needs new food labeling regulations and needs closer oversight of food modifications. This is a story that deserves more attention and more analysis, so I’m working on two pending legal research projects on this and hope to post more before long. If readers are interested I would be happy to talk further.

When Tracy is Absent

Tracy can’t always be everywhere with Benjamin.  We try hard to take her to everything, but there are a few rare occasions when it’s just not best for her to be present.  For example, Benjamin and I went on a 30 mile bike ride on Sunday.  Tracy can’t run that far beside the bike, and we aren’t up to that distance pulling her in the Burley even though she’s getting good at it.  So she stayed back and was fine, though a bit sad.  Tracy also can’t go in situations that would be unsafe for her.

On Saturday, Benjamin had a great opportunity but it was a bad situation for Tracy. Benjamin’s scout troop is working on the aviation merit badge and a group was meeting at the local airport, where he got to tour the control tower, do a “walk-around” of a plane and see how maintenance is done, and then fly (and help co-pilot!) a small plane. I opted not to stay since there were enough other adults present who had been with him before and knew about the severity of his allergy, and since we are working hard to give him increasing independence (which is a big part of why he has Tracy).  So this was the first time in the last month that Benjamin was somewhere without either Tracy or me present.

When I picked Benjamin up 2 1/2 hours later, he immediately told me in the car how fun flying was– and then he started looked in the car mirror because his mouth looked funny. When I looked also it was clear that he was having a minor reaction, which had just started shortly before I arrived. The best we can piece together, since Benjamin had nothing to eat there, was either that the cockpit headset he wore had nut residue on it or — more likely — that he got just a trace amount of residue from the cell phone that he used to call me to pick him up.  Benjamin carries his own phone for just such a situation, but the scout policy is generally that boys are not supposed to have or use cell phones and so he was respectful of that and used an adult’s phone rather than his own. This was a mistake both by Benjamin and by the adults present — and we were lucky it wasn’t worse, even though it was plainly an honest mistake.  Had I been present, Benjamin not only would not have needed to call — but, if he’d called, I would have insisted on using his own cell phone.  More importantly, had Tracy been there, she could have “checked” the other cell phone (and the cockpit headset, which could have been the problem) for residue. Even with no nuts visible (and there were not), Tracy could have kept him safe.

That night, we made sure to train Tracy on checking cell phones … and continued to think hard about situations where she can or can’t be present. The simple fact is that Benjamin is safer and less likely to have a reaction if Tracy is present; we unintentionally proved that again Saturday. We’re happy and a bit lucky that what happened when Tracy was absent on Saturday didn’t progress to anaphylaxis.

Tracy’s first week of school

Tracy has now been to school with Benjamin for a full week, so I thought should post an update.  (Last week was shorter because of Labor Day.) Overall, Tracy has done great at school and has been very helpful to him.  Tracy accompanies Benjamin on the school bus to and from school and stays with him from class to class, checking things along the way for him to keep him safe. Before school started, when she was getting acclimated to the school building, she alerted to several doorknobs (especially at the entrances of the building) that had nut residue on them. She also alerted to a box of scissors in one room, the underside of a couple of desks (where kids would rest their feet, and thus likely contaminated by residue on shoes), and even the top of one of the desks. Knowing this information has helped us all work on making those kind of places safer for Benjamin so that he doesn’t react from peanut residue somewhere. 

Now that school has started, there are two big things that we know that have been helpful for him – and I’m sure I don’t get all the stories from him.  First, this district allows the students to bring a science textbook home for the year so they don’t have to carry it back and forth. When Benjamin selected his, he asked Tracy to check it.  She alerted – probably because the prior student who had it at home had eaten nuts while studying for science last year. He asked Tracy about another book.  She alerted again.  This happened more than once until she “cleared” a book, which he brought home and has now used and has been fine. 🙂  Second, Tracy has now alerted several times to his locker at school. We are still assessing the cause of this, as it could be a strong smell in a locker next to his, something inadvertently rubbed/bumped on the outside by someone else, or something else.  But he’s been able to thank Tracy, fix the situation, and has been (so far) safe. It’s troubling that she’s alerted more than once to the locker but we know to stay on top of it and we’re all watching it.

Getting Tracy to school has been a real shift in routine for Benjamin, and he’s really stepped up.  Tracy has to get up and really get her day going before she can be at her best for working.  So he’s having to wake up before school every day before 6:00 and taking her on a 20 minute fast walk, and then coming home and getting ready himself before feeding her and getting her out the door for school.  And then, after Tracy works so hard all day at school, she needs more attention again and he’s walking her again every afternoon for 30 minutes right now.  (We’ve decided he’s going to be in even better shape than he already is!)  We’re really proud of the level of responsibility he’s taken to care for Tracy, and she is paying him back by giving him excellent behavior and really good detection work during the day when he needs it most.  He has a level of comfort and peace by knowing where allergens are because of Tracy, and tells us that he loves her very much and that she’s worth all the work because of how much she helps him.

What difference does a nose make?

We brought Tracy home in June after spending two weeks in Colorado Springs learning how to work with her.  Bringing home a service dog is in some ways similar to bringing home a new infant.  Everyone’s excited, overjoyed.  Tracy was a long-awaited and prayed-for new member of our family.  We had to adjust our routines to incorporate Tracy’s needs. Benjamin had to learn to embrace a new level of responsibility. We all needed to learn about each other.   It was an important time for all of us.   As can happen in transition times, not everything went smoothly at first.  Tracy immediately began to experience some health issues.   Her transition away from Colorado was more difficult for her because she didn’t feel good.  Happily, she is well now and fully embracing her new home.  She is obviously deeply devoted to her new boy.

Even from early on, though, the answer for our family is:  Yes, her nose makes a difference.  Tracy’s ability to search out trace amounts of allergens makes a difference for our son.  As soon as we brought Tracy home, we went on a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park.  This is the kind of vacation that takes careful planning on our part because of the great distances from medical facilities in remote areas, limited access to safe food,  and heavy dependence on nut products for summer snacking.

To make it work, we rented a cabin with a kitchen and planned to cook from scratch. We always carry a number of epi pens with us in the event of an emergency.  We located places where we could purchase fresh ingredients.

When we pulled up to the cabin in West Yellowstone, my mother waved us back and announced that there were peanuts strewn all over the front porch. (The owner knew of the allergy and had cleaned the inside, but the previous guests must have eaten nuts on the porch just before they left.)  Tracy had been with us 7 days.  Mom and I worked to clean up the porch. When we were done Joel asked Tracy to search the porch. She alerted to the door knob, door mat, and an arm of the chair. I cleaned those areas again. Joel asked her to check the area again. She cleared the door knob and the mat. She alerted again at the chair. As I got down to clean again, I noticed two small peanuts that were under the chair between the wall and cement.  I cleaned those up, wiped it down a third time, and asked Tracy to search it again. She cleared it.  Joel walked her through the house, and she never alerted to anything in the house.

Benjamin sat on the front porch often during that entire week, and never once had even a small reaction.  That might not sound like much, but to us it was amazing.  Tracy’s collar says, “I save Benjamin’s life.”  Did she save his life? I don’t honestly know if that can be measured.  Anaphylaxis works in wily, hard-to-predict ways. That, of course , is why it can be so scary. In one situation it is upon fast and furious. And in another similar situation it isn’t.  What I can say for sure, though, is that my son was relaxed, having fun, and not worried.  He never even had a small reaction. Nothing. That, I can say, was a first for him.

We are extremely grateful to Kathlyn Ross, Tracy’s trainer, for the time and care she poured into Tracy. We are grateful to Tracy’s puppy raisers for the loving environments they provided for Tracy as a puppy.  Her nose makes a difference for our family, for our son. We are grateful.