Trying not to kill with food.

There are tragedies that hit families around the world every day, though some seem more tragic than others. One such case is the recent passing of Scott Johnson in Minnesota from an allergic reaction after eating out. I imagine only a pop-culture definition of a psychopath wouldn’t be horrified for such a loss, but it especially caught my attention. Such a thing is my absolute nightmare, but not because I fear for my kids – I don’t have any – but because I am a chef, and actually harming people can be a constant threat.
This is a case that is going to court, so we can’t say for certainty what exactly happened at this point; the summary is rather brief. In the end, this could be a case of gross misconduct by the restaurant – they were wrong about the batter, either because they didn’t double-check the recipe; the server didn’t properly notify the kitchen which table it was, a cook grabbed the wrong batter… there are plenty of reasons the restaurant would be at fault and those responsible need to face consequences.
However. However, I do want to say this as a general lesson to be taken away from this loss. Having severe allergies, especially to a common ingredient, dining out carries risks, and one should really consider the risk before eating out in those cases.
Take a look at boxes of food or just ingredients at your local grocery store. They’ll almost always note which major allergens are in the packaging. ALLERGENS: SOY, MILK. That sort of thing. But on many, you’ll also find something along the lines of “This product was processed at a facility that also processes tree nuts.”
We are used to lawyer speak and over-warning of dangers. But this is one to be sure to take note of, because it is telling us something. No matter what precautions we are taking, food contamination can happen, and it is very difficult to swear to 100% certainty that none occurred when items are in somewhat close proximity.
Take Gluten-Free items. I’ve worked places where the pastry department made their own gluten-free items. They scrub down the area well and work with freshly cleaned equipment before baking. But I’ve always been slightly nervous about it, because there is flour used in the kitchen. Pre-packaged gluten-free items? I’ve felt much more secure about that, and it has nothing to do with extra precautions or the like. It is because those companies that produce that do not ever use flour – there is no reason for it to be anywhere in the facilities, and thus, so, so much harder to cause any contamination.
With a dairy allergy, in any of my kitchens, there are a lot of the products – milk, cream, butter, cheese, sour cream, pastries and so on. Tell me there is a dairy allergy, and I will double check the recipes. Even if I created the recipe myself, I’ll look it up to be sure. And I’ll check with the cook who made that batch to be sure they didn’t use any. And I’ll ensure only clean, non-contaminated equipment is used. And then I’ll say one more thing – “I cannot absolutely guarantee it.”
I suppose saying so is, in a way, covering my ass legally. But at the moment, I really am not thinking that. I’m simply stating that I can take a lot of precautions, but there is no way I can state that there is no way anything bad can happen. I’ll be open and honest about it. Peanut allergy and ordering a pasta? “Peanuts are not an ingredient on that station; in fact, the only peanuts in the kitchen is peanut butter, and that’s always kept about 70 feet from where the pasta is cooked.”
I am dubious of cases where such trace amounts can cause such problems – if I had to put money on it, something happened where dairy contaminated the young man’s dish. But that is a real risk one is taking. Cooks are human. We have not been replaced by robots, much less robots with some sort of spectrometer that can check for any allergen contamination. Doing a task enough times, a mistake will be made. The key is to limit those risks.
If one is dealing with such a severe dairy allergy, consider when eating out bringing one’s own product that you know is safe from experience at home – not just because the product is known to be safe, but handling it in the kitchen will get even more attention and have much less chance of being contaminated. Or consider vegan establishments. As with the mass-produced gluten-free items, dairy is something that wouldn’t even make it in the back door of such a place, again reducing risk of contamination.
In the end, those in white will do whatever we can to ensure when told of an allergy that we provide a dish that is safe and tasty. But none can really say it is 100% guaranteed, unless the allergen never comes into the kitchen. We are human, and mistakes go get made. The key is to do everything you can to limit both the chance of getting exposed, and the fallout when you do.

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