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Avoiding Cross-Contact in the Kitchen

Even a tiny amount of an allergen can cause a severe, even life threatening, reaction for those with food allergies. These concerns for safety can cause a lot of stress in a shared kitchen, from parents packing school lunches to a couple hosting a dinner party. The key concern is “cross-contact” and minimizing and/or eliminating it is key to a safe space to prepare food for those with food allergies.

What is Cross-Contact?

Cross-contact occurs when one food comes into contact with another and their proteins mix. As a result, each food then contains small amounts of the other food, but in such small quantities that they are invisible to the naked eye. However, even this tiny amount of food protein can cause reactions in people with food allergies!

Cross-contact is not to be confused with “cross-contamination,” a common term in food safety that is to prevent foods from being contaminated by biological contaminates that could cause foodborne illness. However unlike cross-contamination where proper cooking can eliminate the danger of illness, there is no fix that would make it safe for a person with allergies to consume a food that has had cross-contact with an allergen.

How does cross-contact occur?

There are many ways cross-contact in the kitchen can occur. For example, if a knife has been used to spread peanut butter and cleaned only with a paper towel before being used to spread jelly, there could be enough peanut protein remaining on the knife to cause a reaction in someone with a peanut allergy. The jar of jelly is now “contaminated” by the invisible protein.

The best rule of thumb in the kitchen is to either use new or wash your utensils, pans, cutting boards, etc. after preparing a food before using it with another.

What precautions can I take at home?

Some parents choose to completely eliminate all food allergens from their homes after their child’s diagnosis. Others, especially those whose children have many different food allergies, may choose not to take this step but instead have to diligently avoid cross-contact in their homes. Here are some steps to help keep a contamination-free kitchen:

1. Label foods as “Safe” or “Not Safe” with colorful labels

2. Place allergen containing foods in a separate, special area to avoid confusion

3. Teach diligent hand, utensil and surface washing with soap before touching safe foods

4. Confine all food consumption to your kitchen and dining areas

5. If preparing both “Safe” and “Not Safe” food for the same meal, prepare the “Safe” meal first

6. Use disposable foil or grill pans for easy cleanup of cookware and appliances

7. Rinse off dirty dishes and utensils before loading them into your dishwasher

The riskiest foods for cross-contamination are foods that are messy, difficult to clean, or likely to leave crumbs, oil, or other trace allergens on surfaces. Consult your BreatheAmerica allergist to determine the best precautions to take at home to avoid cross-contact and a severe allergic reaction.