Pizza pizza pizza pizza…

SO, THIS just popped up on my Twitter feed:

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And all I can think now is….

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(Confused? For a bit of background see here.) Meanwhile, excuse me while I…

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Posted in Allergy-friendly foods, Allergy-friendly places, Chains, Eating Out, London North & East, Miscellaneous silly stuff, News, Restaurants | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 10 best allergy friendly Easter treats for kids (& more)

EVERY YEAR I think ‘surely they’ve got to do better this time’. And every year I trawl around the supermarkets and realise, nope.

The perdy pastel shelves at M&S:

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Nothing nut free.

The shelves at Sainsbury’s:

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Everything says this:

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To be fair, there’s the odd egg in the FreeFrom aisle – a dark chocolate Kinnerton, say, or a Choices dairy free concoction. And perhaps I live near a particularly shit Sainsbury’s, who knows?

It’s not important, in the scheme of things. But it’s disappointing when you’re faced with row upon row of gorgeous Easter confections – perky bunnies and spring-hued chicks nestled in their net parcels, foil-wrapped mini eggs in glorious pinks and yellows. They look tempting to me, let alone the saucer eyes of a four-year-old still surprised and delighted by the world. But he can’t eat any of them – not even the usually safe Cadbury’s Buttons which, in Easter egg form, are slapped with a nut warning like the rest. And if you’ve got dairy, wheat or egg to contend with as well – fugeddaboudit.

But. Time to move on. There is hope, out there, if you look hard enough. So here it is – my roundup of the best allergy-friendly easter buys for kids this 2015:

1. Waitrose Woodland Friends Easter Egg Hunt Box  (no nuts, egg, gluten, wheat)

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Good-sized hollow eggs in colourful foil wrap. Comes with cute little cardboard ‘signs’ to guide the kids in their hunt. Just beware – most of the rest of Waitrose’s Woodlands Friends range (bar lollies) are NOT nut free, because the products are made in different factories. £5 from Ocado and Waitrose stores.

2. Kinder Bunny ‘with surprise’ (no nuts, eggs, gluten, wheat)

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So nice to find a jolly nut free bunny – they are few and far between. Not all Kinder products are safe, although makers Ferrero are good with labelling – they will state if there’s any cross contamination risk. £2-3 from Ocado and Sainsbury’s and in selected stores

3. D&D Chocolate Bunny Basket (no nuts, dairy, gluten, eggs)

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Another cute concoction, this time by allergy friendly brand D&D, featuring three hollow chocolate eggs that are dairy, egg and gluten free and made in a nut free environment. May contain soya. They do sheep, lamb, chick and rooster versions, too. £4.99 from D&D Chocolates

4. Plamil Dairy Free Easter Egg (no dairy, nuts, eggs, gluten, wheat)

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An organic, fair-trade, dairy free hollow chocolate egg made in a dedicated nut free factory with colourful pics of spring animals on the box. May contain traces of soya. £3.94 from Goodness Direct

5. Kinnerton Thomas and Friends 3 Piece Mealtime Set (no nuts, eggs, gluten, wheat)

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May the Easter bunny bless Kinnerton, kings of the nut free kid-friendly chocolates. This year’s Thomas the Tank Engine number – there’s also a Peppa Pig version – includes a jolly cup, bowl and spoon. £4 from Iceland

6. Kinnerton Frozen Milk Chocolate Egg & Bar 65g (no nuts, eggs, gluten, wheat)

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Another Kinnerton special, and still the only place to go for kids’ character branded nut safe chocolate. Just be wary of some of the bigger Kinnerton eggs, including Frozen, Star Wars and Doctor Who versions, as they are ‘may contain egg’ products. £1 from Iceland

7. Mini Milk Easter Cow (no nuts, eggs)

299718-Mini-Milk-Cow-Egg1Of all the top chocolate brands, Mini Milk have been the only ones to come up trumps two years running. Last year we were delighted to find their nut safe milk van; this year they’ve gone for the cow vote and both the egg and chocolate lollipops are nut and egg free. £1.99 from selected Asda stores and B&M

8. Moo Free Bunnycomb Egg (no dairy, egg, gluten, wheat)

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Dairy free chocolate egg infused with honeycomb toffee pieces, and featuring Rosie the rabbit. There’s also a chocolate orange version, featuring Cheeky Chops the Chimp, and a ‘milk’ chocolate egg too. May contain nuts and soya, though. £4.99 from Holland & Barrett 

9. Choices Dairy Free White Chocolate Bunny Bar (no dairy, gluten, wheat, egg, nuts)

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Image from veganoo.net

A mini kid-friendly bunny from Irish dairy free confectioners Celtic Chocolates. Comes in a ‘milk’ choc version, too. Their nut policy is very detailed, namely that there are no nuts in the factory and staff are banned from eating or bringing nuts on-site (they even conduct spot checks) but because they don’t analyse the entire supply chain for all types of nut they cannot declare themselves 100 per cent nut free (who can?). £1 from Sainsbury’s

10. Cocoa Libre Chocolate Chicks (no nuts, eggs, dairy, gluten, wheat)

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Beautifully packaged rice milk artisan chocolates from newbies Cocoa Libre, whose products are now beginning to be sold via Holland & Barret online. Keep ’em peeled for bears, frogs, owls and sheep as well as gorgeous looking bars for the grown-ups.  £3.99 from Cocoa Libre

And… don’t forget the Nut Free Chocolate People  who have a selection of no nuts chocolate treats including mini bunnies, chicks and eggs in milk, white and dark varieties (£5 from Nut Free Chocolate People)… 

Tasha’s Dairy Free Delights  for dairy and gluten free selections including bunny lollies, all-chocolate ‘trinket boxes’ and solid eggs…

Beautiful little Easter-themed flowers, spring chicks and bunnies from Ayni Chocolate that are – astonishingly – nut, egg, dairy, gluten, wheat, grain, soy and refined sugar free…

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Kinnerton Peppa Pig Easter Hunt Mini Eggs are also a nut free winner (£3 from Iceland)

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and Asda has come up trumps with nut free Easter offerings this year – they have mini eggs (unheard of!) as well as chocolate carrots (£1.25 from Asda) … Hurray!

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** For more ‘allergy-friendly Easter finds see FreeFromFoodsMatter’s round-up and Dairy Free Baby & Me’s ‘Great Big Dairy Free Easter Egg Hunt’ special.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Top 10 allergy friendly places to eat (2014)

IMG_9028SO, here it is – my run-down of our top allergy friendly meals out in 2014. A bit late, but timely in the aftermath of the ‘100 chefs rant against EU allergy laws’ thing. I’ve been tweeting my thoughts on this for a week, and am frankly bored of the moaning. Compelling caterers to declare which allergens are in their dishes doesn’t make anywhere more able, or likely, to cater for us, but it’s a first step on the road to greater understanding. It means that at least we have the right to ask, and to be told. I think that’s fair enough.

Anyway, enough about that. From never having the confidence to allow anyone bar family to cook for Sidney, in this past year we’ve managed to find a clutch of places happy, willing and able to cater for his multiple allergies. They are living proof that it is possible and, for that, I love them longtime.

So, in no particular order, here we go:

1. Locanda Locatelli, W1

The experience that sparked a revolution! I won’t repeat my previous post, but the triumph of eating at Locatelli’s gave me the confidence to seek out more allergy-friendly places. There’s no way we could eat here regularly (££££) but the staff are mega-sussed on cross-contamination and, with advance organisation, everything on the table was safe for Sidney to eat. Beyond brilliant. Am still hoping for a cheap and cheerful offshoot, though. 8 Seymour Street, London W1H 7JZ, locandalocatelli.com

2. Carluccio’s, WC1

We first gave this branch of the Italian chain a go on the recommendation of a fellow allergy Mum, ringing and emailing in advance and popping in 15 minutes before our booking to speak to the manager and head chef. Sidney had egg free penne pasta (they do gluten free, too) with a plain tomato sauce, followed by a fruit salad, all prepared from scratch. There were crayons and activity pads for the kids and it’s also minutes from Coram’s Fields, which is an ace playground for little ones. We’ve been back a few times – a winner, even if choice remains very limited. We found the Islington Upper Street branch accommodating, too, and have eaten there once or twice. One The Brunswick, London WC1N 1AF & 305-307 Upper Street, London N1 2TU, carluccios.com

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2. Nando’s, N16

If five years ago you’d told me I would be an advocate for Nando’s I would have pooh-poohed your Piri-Piri ass. I had the grumps with the brand from the minute it shunted out a much-loved local jazz bar, becoming one of the first chains to invade what has historically been one of London’s most independent high streets. Then we had Sidney and I found out Nando’s is one of the most allergy-friendly restaurant chains in the country. As a company, they are probably the most clued-up on cross contamination. Every branch has a fat allergy booklet, which you should request on arrival. It lists the allergens (including – this is the key – any potential ‘may contains’) in every dish.

We spoke to the manager and ensured Sidney’s food would be prepped on thoroughly cleaned surfaces and away from any of his allergens, and had chicken, fries, mash, avocado, cheese and a frozen yoghurt pudding. We’ve felt able to walk in off the street (albeit for an early sitting in an empty restaurant), which is a rare, rare thing. 139-141 Stoke Newington Church Street, London N16 0UH, nandos.co.uk

3. Leon, SE1

I was super-nervous about Leon as the menu is stuffed with nuts and sesame, but other allergy parents had enjoyed successful meals so we gave it a shot. I went in to speak to the manager on duty, listed Sidney’s allergies and asked if they could prep the food free from cross contamination. He understood exactly, and Sidney had chicken, broccoli and rice from the kids’ menu (minus the tomato chutney which is a ‘may contain’ product). Haven’t made it back again, but we will. I’d always speak to the manager first, though, as branches may well be variable. 7 Canvey Street, The Blue Fin Building (behind Tate Modern), London SE1 9AN, leonrestaurants.co.uk

4. Byron Burger, N1

Another chain recommended by a fellow allergy sufferer. They have a comprehensive list of allergens that every staff member can consult. While the buns contain egg, Sidney was able to have a chargrilled chicken breast or a plain burger with fries and courgette fries, and avocado on the side. Always check what the fries are cooked in, though, as on our second visit we were told that the fryer’s oil had been used that day for potentially egg-containing foods. 341 Upper Street, London N1 oPB, byronhamburgers.com

5. Smokehouse, N1

On first glance this converted Islington pub would be a downright dumb choice for a vegetarian (me) and an allergy kid. A carnivore’s fantasy (piggy nuggets, shortrib, cow burger) its menu sings of tahini sauces, duck egg-topped dishes and nut-packed puddings. I first took my husband there for his birthday (he having to suffer a fate equal to tofu sausages most nights on account of me) and they were so accommodating with my vegetarian request, and the food was so delicious, and the set-up so chilled, and the people so nice, and I heard they did family-friendly weekend lunches, and the write-ups had been brilliant (and… breathe!), I thought ‘what harm is there in asking?’

So I tweeted a tentative query, listing Sidney’s allergy catalogue, and the response came back from the head chef, saying he’d be very happy to cater but would prefer to prep the meal himself, so could we make ‘x’ date and could he suggest a panfried duck breast or a mackerel fillet followed by a handmade panna cotta? Not once did anyone utter the arse-clenching words: “We can’t guarantee no traces.” Get this for an email from front of house: “Myself and [chef] will be here making sure you and your family have the best possible dining experience. You are in good hands.” Amazing. 63-69 Canonbury Road, London N1 2DG, smokehouseislington.co.uk

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6. Bull & Last, NW5

A gorgeous foodie pub just a hop from Highgate’s Parliament Hill, we’ve had two brilliant meals here. Again, we emailed in advance and, after discussions with the manager and chef, pre-ordered Sidney’s meals – roast pork, mash and veg followed by panna cotta the first time, and a burger, veg and family-sized crumble the next. What more can I say? 168 Highgate Road, London NW5 1QS, thebullandlast.co.uk

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7. The Living Space, Watergate Bay, Cornwall

This, extremely unusually for us, was actually a walk-in-off-the-street thing. Well, walk-in-off-the-beach: The Living Space is a sunny terraced restaurant in the oceanside Watergate Bay Hotel. We had a safe packed lunch with us but I was curious as to whether they could cater after a fellow allergy parent recommended them on Twitter. I spoke to the manager and she went to speak to the chef (who I could see in the open kitchen) and I was happy enough with her response – confident, knowledgeable, with no back-covering mumbles – for Sidney to have grilled fish with fries, peas and strawberries and clotted cream for dessert. On the Beach, Watergate Bay, Cornwall, TRB 4AA, watergatebay.co.uk

8. GB Pizza Co, EC1

I love love love this place. We’ve been quite a few times and they’ve always gone out of their way to prep a safe pizza for Sidney. Our first visit was preceded by the usual exchange of emails interrogating them about ingredients, and the responses were always jolly and forthcoming – never a hint of ‘nob off you fusspot lunatic’. We’ve pretty much stuck to the simple margherita, given that Sidney wolfs it down every time. These are authentic pizzas using top notch British produce, in a relaxed setting perfect for a quick stop-off with kids. I’m plotting a trip to their Margate outpost this summer. **UPDATE** So sad to say GB Pizza Co’s Exmouth Market site has now closed – it was amazing to have them on our doorstep. But they are fighting fit in Margate and planning new premises in nearby Cliftonville. That trip to the seaside just got even more pressing. 14a Marine Drive, Margate, Kent CT9 1DH, greatbritishpizza.com

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9. Full of Beans Play Cafe, N5

A very recent addition to our allergy-friendly black book, this small but perfectly formed play cafe ‘got’ allergy from the outset, when it opened last year. The menu lists the biggie allergens in each dish (egg, dairy, nuts etc) and, after I queried whether they could make anything safe for Sidney, the manager suggested they could prep a special nut free pesto, or a tomato pasta, or a ‘toddler tapas’ (a chosen combination of things like raw veg, cheese, cucumber, fruit, dips). We’ve had one penne with pesto so far – I brought in Parmigiano Reggiano because their Grana Padano contained egg – and it was a hit. They sell a few allergy friendly kids’ snacks, too, including Bear dried fruit loops, Pom Bear crisps, Whitworths raisins and fresh fruit. Plus they don’t make any food with nuts or eggs on-site, which is always an added bonus. 69 Highbury Park, London N5 1UA, fullofbeanscafe.co.uk

10. Café Rouge, Center Parcs, Elveden 

As a ‘training café’ for other Café Rouge branches the staff at this Center Parcs outlet were very clued up. I spoke to the manager and she organised safe grilled salmon, fries and veg for Sidney. The chips are cooked in their own gluten free fryer in pure sunflower oil. Pretty straightforward stuff. Center Parcs, Elveden Forest, Brandon, IP27 0YZ, caferouge.co.uk

And…

I can’t sign off without giving special mention to two holiday spots…

In England, Fowey Hall Hotel, one of the Luxury Family chain of hotels. We stayed for three nights last summer during a fortnight in Cornwall (which included for the second year running the ever-amazing Higher Lank Farm). In the run-up I had a series of emails and calls with Fowey’s head chef, James Parkinson, where he took notes on all the safe breads, yoghurts, cereals – you name it – he could buy in for Sidney and we organised a full menu in advance: crumpets, porridge and fruit for breakfast; teatime mains of spaghetti bolognese, roast chicken, veg and gravy, and grilled fish, chips and peas, followed by puddings of banana split with fresh berries, jelly and fruit, and panna cotta with fruit. In fact, the portions were so huge and Sidney was so stuffed that by day three he announced, gob full of something or other: “There’s too much pudding pie at this hotel. It’s too big for my mouth.”

And in Greece the Sani Asterias Suites at the Sani Resort. Not anything like a cheap holiday – huge thanks to my parents – but I never thought I would be able to have a week’s hot beach break with Sidney and every meal safely catered for. The entire team were amazing, from hotel manager to food and catering manager, room service manager and head chef. It’s not easy in Greece to source allergy safe pre-packed foods, such as cereals, so we brought our own and delivered them to the kitchen to be served up beautifully every morning. And there was fresh fruit and yoghurt, pasta, grilled fish, egg free calamari, lamb chops, salads, vegetables and even – beyond my wildest dreams – freshly baked bread rolls every morning for Sidney and the rest of us to eat that day.

We stuck to the Asterias Suites restaurant, Water, and room service to be on the safe side, but one evening even ventured out for a Greek night elsewhere in the marina resort – where a Sidney safe meal was delivered in a golf buggy to our table by the Asterias team. Gobsmacking service and, though I was keyed up to the hilt on arrival (I’d packed a Remoska in my bag), by midway through the holiday I was actually, very nearly, astonishingly, relaxed about the food. That’s some feat. Sani Asterias Suites, Sani Resort, 63077 Kassandra Halkidiki, Greece, sani-resort.com

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Eating out with allergies: the ‘rules’

IMG_1611THERE I WAS, poised to press ‘publish’ on my next post: our top 10 allergy friendly places to eat from 2014. Finding safe spots is never easy, but over the past year we’ve clocked up a few favourites.

Then I realised I should probably preface this post with The Rules. They are the steps we take, and the key things we consider, whenever we eat out. I’m sure others will have more to add, but this is simply how we go about things. Here goes:

* I always ring and email in advance to check the manager and chef are aware, and in some cases we pre-order our meal. It starts as a sussing-out call – do they sound as if they know what they’re doing? If not, forget it. If they do, I’ll go into greater detail, stress that we need the food to be prepped free from cross-contamination, and find out what dishes are likely to be safe for Sidney to eat. I’ll usually summarise the allergies and what we’ve mutually agreed in an email before our booking date. If nothing else, it’s only fair to give a place advance warning where possible and to explain fully what we’re after.

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Check every ingredient – however obvious

* I go through every ingredient – flour, oil, gravy stock, even cheese – to ensure none is a ‘may contain’ product and we won’t unwittingly be fed, for instance, Grana Padano (contains egg) instead of Parmesan. The new EU regulations, requiring catering businesses to inform customers of the ‘Big 14’ allergens in their dishes, is a help, but only the start of a longer conversation to be had. It doesn’t require anyone to reveal risks of cross contamination, or even to guard against cross contamination, and, of course, if you’re dealing with an allergy outside the top 14 you’ll have more questions to ask.

* Upon arrival I always reiterate the ‘can you prep Sidney’s meal without cross contamination?’ spiel and make sure whoever is serving us is fully briefed.

* I prefer it if the manager on duty serves us directly and if we can at some point – either in advance or on arrival – have a conversation with the chef, too.

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Even ‘safe’ chains need reminding

* If you find a safe chain, don’t automatically assume every branch is equally sussed – you’ll have to go through the same rigmarole in every branch, as standards can vary enormously.

* Similarly, if you find a safe place to eat, remind them of your needs every time you visit. Staff change, recipes change: you can never be complacent.

We always go for off-peak times – a midday lunch, for example, or a 5pm tea. Easy when the kids are small and it fits their routine, but it’s probably always best to aim for the quieter periods where possible: the start of a lunch or evening service is a good slot.

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Keep small hands busy

* Factor in a longer wait as allergy friendly food will often have to be prepped from scratch. I take sticker books. That may not work when he’s 15.

* Try to help a restaurant by spelling out what you can have, not just what you can’t. We’ve found some brilliantly accommodating places but eating out with allergies is about communication between you and the chef/manager. If meat and two veg is generally a safe option, or a simple tomato pasta dish, let them know so they can think up something that works for their kitchen. Make it easier for them – it’s not their job to guess what we need.

* Don’t feel pressurised into eating out. This one’s a biggie: it took me until Sidney was three to take the plunge. I needed to get to a stage where I was feeling more confident about managing Sidney’s allergies, and had a grip on exactly which foods he was allergic to. Other allergy parents can sometimes be a bit (well-meaningly) pushy about eating out – they do it, and are understandably keen to encourage others to do it, too,  but it has to be a step taken when you feel the time is right. Personally, I think it’s important to get there at some point: I wanted us as a family to be able to go out to eat, for Sidney to enjoy great food (I’m an OK cook but there’s a limit to my culinary capabilities), have a future with a full social life and, vitally, to hear us asking all the questions he will need to ask, and taking all the precautions he will need to take, as he gets older. I started out tentatively at one or two places on the recommendations of a fellow allergy Mum, whose opinion I trusted, and built my confidence from there.

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Decide whether nuts are a no-no

* Draw your own parameters. For me, the existence of nuts or eggs on a restaurant menu does not necessarily signify an automatic no-no. There’s been a lot of concern recently within the allergy community over Pizza Express’s decision to serve loose nuts. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, but I will always ask how a restaurant manages cross contamination, and specifically in relation to dishes that give cause for concern. But don’t be swayed by others’ opinions – stay within your personal comfort zone. Ask all the right questions and expect all the right answers, otherwise…

* …my absolute rule of thumb is: if I’ve got any doubts, I don’t do it.

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Expect fruit for dessert

Other than all of that, puddings are generally fruit salad but that’s fine by me. Bread and breadsticks are usually a no-no (risk of cross contamination with nuts and sesame) so I bring some if I think they might be asked for. And if the rest of us might want to order dessert I bring a safe cake or chocolate treat for Sidney to have, too.

If that bumper list doesn’t make it obvious, going out for a meal these days is far from spontaneous. And if, like me, you favour skulking anonymously into a restaurant to hunker down without fuss, get used to never being able to do this ever again. You might as well amble in with egg cups in place of your bazinkas and a small entourage of limping otters for all the anonymity you’ll retain when eating out with allergies.

But it’s worth it.

Coming up next: Top 10 allergy friendly places to eat out 

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Preventing allergies – a Twitter essay

Unknown-1RIGHT NOW, as I type, many of the world’s top and absolutely bestest allergists and allergy experts are gathered in Houston for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology annual meeting. Later tonight, the UK’s Professor Gideon Lack will reveal the data from the long-awaited LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut Allergy) study into how best to prevent peanut allergy in young children.

In the run-up, I have been following the tweets from the great and the good gathered at the conference and the most amazingly informative string of posts has just come through from Canadian allergist Dr David Fischer. He calls it a Twitter essay on LEAP. Genius, and I felt it was worth sharing so I’ve pasted it below. (If you want to follow Dr Fischer on Twitter he’s @IgECPD and if you want to follow the conference tweets search the hashtag #AAAAI15.)

‘How we got to the leap study and what’s at stake’: A Twitter Essay by David Fischer, MD

1. There are 2 known ways of inducing tolerance (ie preventing allergy) in children: high zone tolerance and low zone tolerance

2. The concept of low zone tolerance is that if you’re not exposed to something you can’t become sensitized/allergic to it

3. Concept explains why North Americans become allergic to animals they’re exposed to (cats/dogs) but not, say, Tasmanian Devils 

4. Original theory behind strict avoidance of food allergy introduction until older ages in children based on low dose tolerance theory

5. High zone tolerance is when large early exposures induce tolerance. This is the plan of the LEAP study

6. The problem with the low zone tolerance idea in the West is that the strict avoidance of these foods is impossible 

7. Most patients reacting to peanut have with 1st exposure, but it’s not their 1st. Traces in packaged food & skin exposure in homes problem

8. A few Physician groups put out warnings based on Strict Avoidance/Delayed Introduction. That timed with increase in food allergy rate

9. These Guidelines were reversed years ago, allowing for earlier introduction of foods to children…with the hope of it being preventative

10. An Aussie study has already shown that introducing cooked egg between 4-6 months of age appears to prevent sensitization to egg 

11. Dr Lack (LEAP study author) has already noted that the rate of peanut allergy in Israel (where peanut is 1 of the 1st foods) is lower

12. Lack feels it’s a race against time to induce oral tolerance to peanut before intermittent trace exposures (esp skin) induce allergy

13. What we find out today is whether we can literally PREVENT peanut allergies through early peanut introduction. Stay tuned

Note: I asked him if he would mind clarifying ‘intermittent’ in this context and he replied: “From a food perspective I would mean small exposures such as feeding a child foods that have ‘traces of nuts’ instead of nuts.”

So there you have it. Now waiting on that LEAP* data.

The LEAP trial took 640 children aged between four months and 11 months of age who were identified as high risk for peanut allergy (based on an existing egg allergy and/or severe eczema). They were randomly split into two groups – consumption or avoidance. Those in the consumption group were to consume a peanut-containing snack with three or more meals per week; those in the avoidance group were not to ingest peanut-containing foods, both until the age of five. Here is more on LEAP from the BSACI and the Anaphylaxis Campaign.

**UPDATE** And here we have it – feeding peanuts to young infants with heightened allergy risk dramatically reduces the odds that a peanut allergy will develop. Follow the links to the study findings in the New England Journal of Medicine, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine blog here, the Allergic Living report here and The Telegraph here. Worth noting that Professor Lack has stressed that infants showing early signs of peanut allergy (those with skin prick test reactions greater than 4mm) were excluded from the study and effects of peanut consumption in this group remain unknown. But this is properly groundbreaking stuff…

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Brave new world & breadsticks

DSC_0456NEWS that a posho West End restaurant has been forced to close its doors wouldn’t usually fill me with glumness. But, oh, how I am bemoaning the loss – temporary or not – of Locanda Locatelli.

The celebrated Portman Square hangout has been left homeless following a gas explosion in the five-star Hyatt Regency Churchill hotel that houses it.

And now its chef-patron, Giorgio Locatelli, says he may abandon the site and try to re-open elsewhere.

So why my gloom? Well, because a visit to Locanda Locatelli last year marked the beginning of a brave new world for us as a family. It’s where we ate our first meal out, fully catered for Sidney.

Now, clearly, I wouldn’t normally countenance a £30 a dish restaurant as the ideal place to take a toddler for lunch. But this meal was the ultimate gift to an Allergy Mama: organised behind my back, a surprise for my birthday from my Mum and husband, both of whom bravely took over the reins dealing with our complicated allergy requests and managing to sort a three-course meal for nine of us, where every single item on the table was safe for Sidney to eat.

EVERY. SINGLE. ITEM.

From the breadsticks to the homemade rosetta rolls – beloved of my childhood trips to Rome – the cicchetti and tomato pizzette brought out with our aperitifs, through the starters, main courses and even a specially prepared birthday cake, every single thing on that table was prepped free from cross contamination and Sidney-safe.

SIDNEY SAFE.

Breadsticks! DSC_0464 IMG_8676   IMG_8672 IMG_8680 IMG_8684 IMG_8686 IMG_8688 As a rule, and because I’m such a control freak, the sorting of safe food for Sidney is My Job. But the reason my Mum and husband knew they were on safe ground is because I’d been banging on about how much I’d like to try taking Sidney to Locanda Locatelli one day (subtle, me) because, as he revealed in a Guardian interview several years ago now,  Giorgio Locatelli’s own daughter Margherita, has multiple severe allergies: everything from eggs to nuts, fish, tomatoes, strawberries, peppers… As her mother Plaxy put it in a bathetic refrain no doubt familiar to most of us allergy parents: “Thank God she likes potatoes.”

Not only was this meal the best birthday present ever (of course, Sidney stuffed his little face so full of breadsticks, and rolls, and bits of pizza, that he could barely manage the rest of his meal), but it opened the floodgates. The following day, I made a New Year’s resolution: to find at least five Sidney-safe places where we could eat out as a family in 2014.

You know what? We found more than that. So, coming up in my next post is a run-down of our favourite allergy friendly eateries for the past year.

And for 2015 I am setting myself a task to find some more. And hoping Locanda Locatelli reopens in the new guise of an affordable, nationwide chain ;-)

See this Allergy UK link for a video interview with Giorgio Locatelli 

**UPDATE – FEB 2015** Woop! Locanda Locatelli has announced it will be reopening on March 14. Now to lobby for that high street offshoot…

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The new allergy regulations – FAQs & the chance to ask an expert

EVERY THURSDAY evening, from 8.30 to 9.30pm, we run an Allergy Hour (#allergyhour) on Twitter – a forum for allergy people and parents to ask questions, rant, rave, swap tips, share recipes. Last night the folks at the Anaphylaxis Campaign kindly offered up one of their experts to answer specific questions on the new EU allergen labelling laws. Today they’ve put together a handy FAQ guide to deal with some of the issues that came up. See here for more. It covers everything from how the laws will be enforced to where businesses can get advice. Continue reading

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Allergy Labelling – the new laws is a comin’

coffee-and-cake-pairing_emag_article_largeA YEAR or so back, I ambled along to our local park cafe – newly refurbed, ponced-up and handed to a big name London catering firm – and fancied buying myself a coffee and a cake.

Unable to eat nuts around Sidney, I asked the girl on the counter if she could tell me please what was in the carrot cake; might it contain any nuts, or nut flours? She trotted off to ask the chef. Minutes later, the reply came back: “The chef can’t tell you what’s in the cake. His recipes are secret.”

Needless to say that particular ‘chef’ was a twat, but it’s heartening to know that as of tomorrow this kind of response will be flat-out illegal. It probably always was a bit dodgy but the guidelines are now absolutely crystal clear.

The new regulations

Under the new EU Regulation 1169/2011 – aka the new EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (FIR) – any catering business will have to have full and correct information on the 14 major allergens contained within its products.

The 14 major allergens are:

  • Cereals containing gluten (eg wheat, spelt, barley, rye and oats)
  • Crustaceans such as prawns, crabs, lobster and crayfish
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Peanuts
  • Soybeans
  • Milk
  • Nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, walnuts, pecan nuts, brazil nuts, pistachio, cashew, macadamia or queensland nuts)
  • Celery
  • Mustard
  • Sesame
  • Sulphur dioxide or sulphites (often found in dried fruit and wine)
  • Lupin
  • Molluscs like clams, scallops, squid, mussels, oysters and snails

The good bits

Now, I have my reservations about the new laws for various reasons but the good things, as far as I can see, are as follows:

* If you walk into any catering establishment and ask what allergens any of its foods or dishes contain, they have to be able to tell you. They can tell you verbally, or have the information written down, but there must be clear signposting to advise you how you can get this information from staff.

* Nobody can say ‘er, I dunno’ or ‘I’m so up my own ass about my bog standard scone recipe that I can’t tell you what’s in it’. They have to tell you if the food contains any of the 14 major allergens. They have to be accurate. If they are not, you can report them to the food environmental health team of your local authority or the Food Standards Agency.

* It means that every catering establishment will have to have at least this rudimentary understanding of the notion of allergens and what the biggies are. That’s a first step in the right direction.

* Every restaurant will have to list ALL of the most common allergens. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to find out if a dish contains sesame (I’m thinking chains such as ASK, or Zizzi) and hit a blank.

Pre-packed food labels will change

The new laws also cover pre-packed foods, such as those sold in supermarkets. These foods will have to have the major 14 allergens clearly highlighted within the ingredients list (for example in bold). Be warned – it means the end of the old allergen ‘box’, stating ‘Contains: milk, eggs, whatnot’. We will no longer have this shorthand and will have to scrutinise the ingredients list to check for allergens. Bear in mind, too, that this information will be phased in, as some foods with a long shelf life will still not have switched over to the new-style labelling.

This is the old way, courtesy of M&S:

getty_rm_photo_of_nut_allergy_warning_label

This is the new (courtesy of M&S and beauty, allergy and eczema blogger Sugarpuffish):

food label

There are some very complicated and disputed bits to this law, which I won’t go into here but which ‘Health Journo’ and Coeliac expert Alex Gazzola covers brilliantly in his blog. It isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds, and manufacturers – even the biggies – are still getting this wrong.

The less good bits

BUT.

Despite claims that this will revolutionise the way we eat out and shop as allergic consumers, I still have massive reservations. These include:

* It is still not compulsory for caterers to learn about allergen control and cross contamination. Without this becoming an obligatory part of basic hygiene certification (i.e. without chefs and caterers having to pass a module in how to guard against contamination) I don’t have huge confidence that the vast majority of outlets will be able to safely cater. They will be:

(a) scared, where they actually don’t need to be – catering for allergies is not a dark art, but many are petrified of the consequences because they don’t understand what simple steps they can take

(b) confused about what constitutes cross contamination (I once had a manager in a John Lewis cafe tell me their food was unsafe because there were nuts stored in an adjacent room. Possibly they were flying nuts but you’d think she would have mentioned it…)

(c) in some cases not shit-giving enough to do anything but the absolute minimum – i.e. list the allergens but not try to cater for the allergic.

* There is nothing to legislate for the bane of our lives – ‘may contain’ labelling. There are Food Standards Agency guidelines that note there should be “significant and demonstrable risk” for a product to bear the warning ‘may contain nuts’ or ‘sesame’ or x allergen. But there is no law to govern this, therefore it is still perfectly possible (if inadvisable) for a food manufacturer or supplier to state ‘may contain nuts’ etc where no genuine risk of cross contamination exists.

The divs

There are some amazingly wonderful people out there who go the extra mile to cater for allergy (and I’ll be posting about those that we have found, very soon), but there are also some divs out there huffing and puffing about the ‘extra admin’. I’m thinking of Stuart Atkinson, ‘VP’ of the National Federation of Fish Friers, whose empathy at the end of this Guardian report is heart-warming. As he puts it:

“This is yet another administrative burden placed on small businesses… Once all the interest in the new regulations dies down, we are still stuck with them.”

Yes, it’s sort of the point that the regulations last longer than a fortnight.

“Constant vigilance will be required on receipt of deliveries in case a supplier has altered a pie recipe, for example.There is no requirement for fish friers to be directly informed of any changes to the ingredients of the products we buy, other than the list of ingredients on the packaging. We must therefore check every delivery for any changes to this list.”

Welcome to our world.

Stuff worth remembering

Some other points to bear in mind:

* Unless they are a registered food business, charity cake sales and voluntary bake events are exempt. The Food Standards Agency’s Technical Guidance Notes here state that: “Individuals who are not food businesses and occasionally provide food at charity events or voluntary cake sales, for example, do not need to follow these requirements.”

* The new regulations are NOT a substitute for asking all the questions you should usually ask. Don’t assume that you can walk into any restaurant or cafe and eat safely if your allergen isn’t listed as an ingredient. Talk to the manager and, ideally, the chef. Explain your allergy/allergies and that you need your food to be prepared away from those allergens, and can’t eat food that ‘may contain’ any of the allergens. Explain the severity of your allergy. This checklist from the Anaphylaxis Campaign is helpful.

The responsibility is ours

At the end of the day, much of the responsibility still – rightly – lies with us as allergic consumers. It is down to us to explain what we need, clearly and fully, and down to us to help to educate others out there about how they can best cater for us safely.

So I’ll be viewing the new regulations with a healthy suspicion: as a good first step but far from perfect. I’ll be quick to praise and thank those who get on top of the new regulations and go the extra mile to cater for us, and I’ll be bracing myself to do the other with those that don’t.

As fellow allergy blogger @allergymumscouk put it on Twitter: “What’s the saying? ‘Walk quietly but carry a big stick'”.

Batons at the ready…

Mf_cavewoman

 

Extra resources: The Food Standards Agency’s advice to consumers leaflet is here, and its guidance for small and medium food businesses on the requirements for loose foods is here

 

 

 

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We cannot guarantee…

imagesSO today I had a call back from the head of the primary school we expect Sidney will be going to.

I had a mini tour of it a few weeks back and it seemed very warm and jolly. We were shown round by some older kids who were pretty clued up when I asked if any pupils had food allergies; I also spoke to the SENCO (the Special Needs Co-Ordinator) at the time, and she said all the right things. As soon as I walked into Reception I clocked the tots playing with egg boxes and lentils (!) but she assured me that equipment and lessons would all be made safe.

Then the head rang me today, because I requested a quick chat with him before we apply in January, and the first thing he said was: “It’s about allergies, isn’t it? Well, I have to say we can’t guarantee anything.” Continue reading

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Living on the egg-dge

IMG_2273SORRY, sorry. Just trying to find a way to express how daring my day was. Because today I took Baby Two for scrambled eggs.

It’s been almost exactly a year since the last time we managed to get some scramble down her – last December, on my birthday, during one night away from Sidney when Sadie was still too small to be left with her grandparents overnight.

Since then it’s been playing at the back of my mind. Every few months some article or other pops up on my Twitter feed proclaiming that avoidance of certain foods could actually lead to the development of allergies. Continue reading

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