Tag Archives: anaphylaxis

Nuts on airplanes: what’s the big deal?

As our flight back to the UK prepared for take off on Tuesday, I was reassured by the now-familiar (to me) announcement that as there was a passenger on board with a severe nut allergy they would not be serving food containing nuts during the flight, and would appreciate it if other passengers refrained from opening any nut products they might have brought on board.

It’s the best I can possibly hope for when I have to fly, but I’m pretty sure most of my fellow passengers would have had no idea how important it was for me to hear those words. I can always sense a wave of incredulity pass over the cabin – sometimes people are vocal about it, calling the whole affair nonsense, but even when they stay silent I’m not convinced they really understand.

And why would they? If you (or someone you love) do not suffer from a severe food allergy then there is no reason for you to see why the prospect of being exposed to the allergen is quite so scary, or why that risk is amplified quite so much when flying. Making an announcement that impinges on the freedoms of other passengers might seem over the top, just health and safety gone mad. And that is why I have written this post.

IMG_0642

For me, there is nothing much more terrifying than the prospect of being trapped in a sealed metal box 40,000 feet in the air surrounded by several hundred people simultaneously opening packets of nuts. Because, like hundreds of thousands of other people in the UK, nuts are my Kryptonite: contact with just the smallest amount would put me at risk of becoming seriously ill or even dying as a result of anaphylactic shock.

Fortunately in the UK and Europe it is rare now for an airline to hand out free nuts to everyone on board. But nuts are still sold on most flights, and nuts are an increasingly popular snack option for health-conscious people to bring along themselves, so I don’t feel I can relax entirely.

Anaphylactic reactions to airborne nut particles are rare, but certainly not unheard of. There was a high profile case last summer where a four year old girl collapsed when a nearby passenger began eating a bag of nuts on their flight, and I have heard several similar anecdotes from people with nut allergies.

For my part, I have been in situations where I have been surrounded by nuts in a confined space and have begun to feel the tell-tale signs of the onset of a serious reaction: several times at bars or parties where bowls of peanuts sat on every table, and once on a ferry from Dar es Salaam to Zanzibar where the snack of choice for seemingly everyone on board was roasted cashews. On each of these occasions I have had a choice – to stand on the deck of the ferry, or to go to another bar – but if the tingling mouth and tightening throat began to set in on an aircraft there really wouldn’t be anywhere I could go.

So for me flying is about minimising risk. I try to only travel with airlines who will make the concessions that EasyJet did when we flew from the UK to Crete. For EasyJet, it is part of their policy, as it is for Flybe, WestJet and Icelandair, all people I have enjoyed flying with over the past couple of years. With many other airlines you are at the whim of the cabin crew as to whether they are prepared to take steps to make the flight safe. And with some, such as British Airways, their policy is the complete opposite: they categorically refuse to inform other passengers that there is someone with a severe allergy on board.

I had a particularly difficult experience four years ago, returning from honeymoon in Vietnam. We were travelling with Qatar Airways, and prior to our trip had gone through all the proper channels to ensure that I would not find myself in the nightmare situation I described above. Our outbound flight was perfect – a polite announcement was made, alternative snacks were served, and I filled in a glowing feedback form before leaving the plane. But in the two weeks we were away they changed their policy. On arriving at the airport in Ho Chi Minh we were told that it was now the decision of the crew whether or not to make concessions for my allergy, and that before I was allowed to board I would have to sign a disclaimer absolving them of any responsibility if I were to get ill or die on the flight. We didn’t have much choice at this point, so I figured I’d just have to hope the crew were understanding. As we boarded the plane I had the conversation, and they reassured me that they would not be serving nuts as snacks and would make the announcement to fellow passengers. Something was niggling at me, though, as we went to take our seats, and I asked what meal they were going to serve. Turns out it was Chicken Satay – so I would have to deal with the fragrance of warm, minced peanuts wafting through the cabin as everyone took the lid off their meal tray.

Needless to say we didn’t get that flight. There was of course no way they could have changed the meal at such late notice – though I had informed the airline of my allergy months before. So we booked into a hotel for another night, and tried to figure out some other way to get home. It was Eid, making getting hold of anyone at the Qatar head office almost impossible, but we eventually got reassurance that they would be able to fly us home the next day under the initial conditions we had agreed. Except when we were at the gate, just after the head of the cabin crew had sought me out and reassured me that he would be doing everything to make the flight safe, the pilot came over and told me that he wasn’t prepared to take the risk of transporting someone with a nut allergy and I was not allowed to board the plane.

We got home eventually, two days late for my new job, with another airline and at great expense. In the weeks that followed I tried to pursue compensation from Qatar, but they were unflinching in their conviction that they had done nothing wrong. I even looked into legal action, but was advised that any lawsuit would be very costly and due to the might of the airline’s legal team had little chance of success.

I was left feeling like I had been mistreated and ill-informed, and ultimately discriminated against because of my allergy. Recent rulings have decided that nut allergy can in fact be considered a disability, and thus discrimination against those who suffer from allergies should be treated as seriously as you would any disability discrimination. Yet a surprising number of airlines (and passengers) seem to feel that it is those who are asked if they could temporarily refrain from eating nuts that are being discriminated against – an attitude that the many similar stories from those with nut allergies attest to.

I don’t really understand why an airline would knowingly want to take the risk of someone going into anaphylactic shock on board one of their planes, or why they would want to make life more difficult for someone with a long-standing medical condition. In the States, where many airlines do still hand out free nuts to everyone on board, it is hard not to link the brick wall faced by passengers with allergies to the powerful lobbying groups attached to the multi-million dollar peanut industry.

I could never consider flying with an airline which still has nuts as an intrinsic part of its meal service. But even on airlines where my nightmare is less likely I have to be careful – after all, there is nothing to stop all of the passengers surrounding me deciding that they want to snack on nuts if there is nothing to indicate to them that this might be a bad idea. It is this situation that makes EasyJet’s approach so invaluable to me – I know they cannot guarantee me a completely nut-free flight, but I really appreciate the fact that they try their best to keep me safe.

I suppose ultimately for someone with a severe nut allergy, I really do have some cheek. Not only do I like to eat out from time to time, but I like to be able to travel to places that can only easily be reached by air. There are those who would say that, given my health condition, I should just avoid these experiences, but I beg to differ.

What do you reckon? Am I being unreasonable? Or do commercial airlines and their passengers have a responsibility to create an environment for travel that is safe for those with allergies? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Why chefs need to take responsibility for what is in their food

Two weeks ago, a group of ‘chefs, restaurateurs, hoteliers and caterers’ put their names to an open letter published in The Telegraph. In this letter, they rallied against the recent regulations introduced by the EU designed to make eating away from home an easier option for the many people, like myself, who suffer from a serious allergy.

IMG_0830

It was on my radar at the time, but it has taken me a little while to fully digest the implications between the lines of their sparsely worded letter and to formulate a response which is not merely an outpouring of fury at the ignorance and arrogance which underpins their declarations.

On one level, actually, they’ve done me a favour: I now have a clear and categorical list of the establishments and proprietors I need to ensure I avoid whenever I fancy a meal out. I enjoy good food, and I love eating in restaurants when the occasion arises, but it simply isn’t worth risking a life-threatening allergic reaction if the person preparing my food isn’t willing, or able, to tell me whether it might contain nuts.

It is for this reason that the publication of the letter strikes me as an extraordinarily bad business move – ironic, really, when its signatories are aligned behind an organisation called ‘Business for Britain‘. Clearly it is more important for them to take a swipe at the EU than to consider the needs of a significant portion of their customer base. Conservative estimations of people suffering from acute, severe food allergies in the UK put the number at around 500,000. Other studies indicate that 6-8% of children in the UK – that’s over 1 million – have a proven food allergy. Whichever way you look at it, there are an awful lot of people whose health – and life – relies on knowing what is in the food they eat. They all have families and friends whose dining habits will be influenced by the allergy sufferer. So why exclude so many potential customers from your business?

This issue of exclusion is at the heart of my anger towards the signatories of this letter. Allergy is not a lifestyle choice. It is not something that causes mild irritation to its sufferers. It can – and does – cause death if the allergen is inadvertently consumed: there are between five and fifteen fatalities each year directly caused by food allergy in the UK. Many of these are due to meals eaten outside the home – and, as with the 18 year old who tragically died in Manchester earlier this year after eating a burger, allergy sufferers tend to be very clear with restaurant staff about the food they need to avoid. I mean, you would be, wouldn’t you, if you knew that eating the wrong thing could kill you?

Far too many times when I have asked the necessary questions with regards to my allergy the response of the waiting staff is that they cannot guarantee that any of their food is nut free. This warning is so ubiquitous now on packaged food that at first glance it might not seem so extraordinary, but in the types of establishments I favour – ones which serve freshly made food cooked from scratch – I really do find it quite odd. If it were true, then what else that is lying around in the kitchen might have made it into the food? Bleach, perhaps? Or maybe rat poison? The implied lack of caution about cleanliness and cross-contamination astounds me. In the vast majority of cases, when I push further for a response from the chef, they are happy to reassure me that they can prepare me a meal that is safe. If they don’t, then I can’t eat there. Simple, really.

Putting the issue of cross-contamination to one side, the signatories of the letter decrying the improved regulations seem to take things one step further. In complaining that the rules will destroy ‘spontaneity, creativity and innovation’ they seem to be implying that, as chefs, they have a right to add ingredients on a whim without the irritating distraction of the consumer taking away from their art. They seem to have forgotten that they have a responsibility to the people who are paying them to prepare their meal – and that responsibility includes providing food that is not going to cause illness or death to someone suffering from an allergy.

They complain of the ‘bureaucratic nightmare’ these new regulations have caused, but in reality businesses can comply with the new regulations simply by being able to verbally communicate, if asked, whether dishes contain any of the top 14 allergens. Having taught in the state system for ten years I fully appreciate the frustration that comes with seemingly unnecessary paperwork, but is that really too much to ask?

After recent high-profile scandals around the food we eat not being quite what we thought it was (horsemeat, anyone?), I think we would all like to know what it is we are putting in our bodies. If you have an allergy, this concern becomes even more important.

If you are a chef, I do not believe you have the right to exclude someone from accessing the services at your establishment because they suffer from a chronic medical condition. In fact I would argue that to do so flies in the face of legislation surrounding equality and access – particularly as recent rulings have declared that severe allergy is capable of being a disability.

Of course it would be lovely if we did not need to worry about the needs of others as we went about our personal and professional lives, if we could all act as we wished without concerning ourselves with the repercussions our actions might have on others, but the fact is we cannot. And in fact the world would be a far sorrier place if we did.

We all have responsibilities to others – and that is something these ‘top chefs‘ would do well to bear in mind.