Not my most cheerful title, I realise. But it’s true – if you’ve never had a serious allergy, or never loved someone who does, then you probably haven’t given the topic much thought. And I don’t blame you – neither had I. Almost a year ago, I met my boyfriend, Andrew. I also met the everyday fear that a handful of people associate with food: a restaurant was suddenly a potential for tragedy, the supermarket was half-filled with danger, and a modern, regulated food label was now a much appreciated life-line.
Now this all sounds rather gloomy and dramatic when I put it like that, but for Andrew it’s fine; it’s life. We get on with things quite happily, quite easily, all the while carefully avoiding nuts and soya.
Rather than rambling on myself, I roped Andrew into giving a few thoughts on the subject. He said the first thing that’s important to bear in mind is that ‘allergies lie on a spectrum of severity.’ The impact an allergy will have on a person’s life depends on what they are allergic to (kiwis, for instance, are quite easy to avoid), and then how sensitive they are to that substance. So for Andrew, dodging peanuts isn’t the real obstacle: it’s avoiding traces of them.
‘The most dangerous part of having my allergy is that food can be contaminated accidentally… It can be triggered based on the action of an individual who has no idea that what they’re doing could be harmful… The average person wouldn’t necessarily be aware.’
And he’s right – it was a surprisingly steep learning curve for me. I didn’t realise how little I had considered the consequences of allergens before. I’d never really processed the fact that one harmless, common ingredient – something I never gave a second thought to when popping biscuits into my basket at Tesco – was lethal to some. Let’s face it, if we all had Andrew’s allergies, peanuts would be quarantined like Novichok. And instead we stock them in supermarkets!
So whilst Andrew is quite accustomed to keeping himself safe, it’s the unknowing people around him which pose the threat. Heck, even unwashed hands on a door handle could be a risk. But it’s easy to learn – it’s already an instinctive thing for me to turn over a packet and scan the ingredients. I even do it when he’s not around, just out of interest (and for the memory bank of Andrew-friendly foods of course).
This is why I think the tragic stories given spotlight in the media recently have done something good – they’ve made people think. Pret’s blunder, and other similar cases, have placed a spotlight on allergies as a little-considered killer. Even if you don’t own a restaurant or work in a kitchen, being aware will make you more understanding, and that can go a long way. Andrew agrees; on an ordinary level and a corporate one, people will be more likely to think twice.
But on a personal level, Andrews says the recent news conflicts him, ‘because it’s a reminder of how serious having an allergy can be. And it’s scary. It’s something you live with forever, you always have to be on guard, and all it takes is one little mistake.’
‘I guarantee the victims of those stories had no idea that was going to happen. It was just pure accident, and that’s the scary part of it.’
Though as I said before, it’s not a matter of doom and gloom, just caution. Andrew says his silver lining is all the home-cooked meals he had growing up, the lack of processed food in his diet, and the care his friends and family take in accommodating him.
‘It’s all about your attitude, and when you put it into perspective, I get on with my life, and I’m really happy and grateful for everything I have. It’s just something you have to keep in the back of your mind.’
After all, it’s easy when you know how.