Saturday, February 26, 2011

Beware the Cross Contamination

I spent the last week feeling crappy. My gut was unhappy. I had a cold coming on. I worked late a lot of nights and didn't go to the gym. Whenever I have the angry gut and sore throat combo I start to wonder if I've been getting some gluten somewhere.

All of this started after my night at the Mellow Mushroom. I can't say for sure that their gluten free pizza wasn't really gluten free, but I realized that I took it on blind faith that it was. I didn't ask any questions about precautions they took to ensure that there was no cross contamination in the toppings or in the oven. I don't think there are any legal obligations that a restaurant has to ensure that their gluten free items are truly gluten free. I know of one pizza place in particular that carries gluten free pizza. I ate there on a regular basis until I found out that they clean everything at the end of the night by blowing the surfaces with compressed air. Gluten blows all around and the toppings, sauces, and utensils are not necessarily covered. There's certainly no guarantee that cross contamination doesn't happen there. I don't know that I ever got sick from eating that pizza, but I no longer feel confident doing so.

At my house, I am the crumb police. I have issued a war on crumbs, and everything, from where we store the gluten-full toaster to what cutting boards are okay to use, has a rule. When a gluten free person and a gluten full person share a kitchen, certain rules have to exist. For example:
1. No gluten shall touch my stoneware (it is porous, and porous materials hang on to gluten).
2. Any gluten-full crumbs must be wiped up immediately and the towel thrown in the wash. Just brushing them onto the floor doesn't count. Use cleaner.
3. Clean the counters before you lay a slice of GF bread on them. Better yet, always use a clean plate.
4. We don't have a dishwasher, so gluten-full dishes get washed AFTER the gluten free ones. Then the dish rag gets run through the washing machine.
5. No wooden utensils. If they come in contact with gluten once, they are never truly gluten free (they are porous and soak up the gluten).
6. Wash your hands after touching gluten-full food. (Dog treats included.)

This is just a handful of the rules around my kitchen that make my food safe for me to eat. I wonder if restaurants with gluten-free menus have rules to keep the food safe. I'm sure that some do. Some chefs are highly educated and aware of food sensitivities (gluten and others). They are the ones that know their ingredients and can tell you everything that is in the food that they prepare.

Ming Tsai, of the PBS cooking show Simply Ming is my hero in this area. On his web site he has a page dedicated to food allergies. He is a spokesperson for FAAN, The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. FAAN is an organization dedicated to making it safe for people with food allergies to eat out. It is one of my dreams to make it to Boston someday to eat at Ming's restaurant Blue Ginger.

Celiac disease isn't a food allergy, it's an autoimmune disease. But, as inconvenient and scary as it is to know the health risks I incur if I eat gluten, I don't have to worry about immediate death upon eating the offending food. Still, getting "glutened" isn't okay. It does has serious long term (and short term) affects on my health. It's up to me to ask the right questions and to know what I'm eating.

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