November 1, 2019

What You Should Know About Cross-Contact and How to Avoid It

If you or your child has severe food allergies, life may sometimes feel like walking through a live minefield. Without proper precautions, you risk exposure to allergens that could threaten your quality of life and health. That’s why it is important to avoid cross-contact.

What is cross-contact?

Cross-contact is what happens when an allergen-containing food comes into contact with a food that does not naturally contain the allergen. Cross-contact spreads the allergen to the typically “safe” food, creating the risk of a reaction.

Cross-contact vs cross-contamination

Although cross-contact and cross-contamination are often used interchangeably, they technically have different meanings.

Cross-contact is properly used to refer to different foods that have been in contact with each other, either directly or indirectly. The allergen protein from one food is transferred to an allergen-free food.

With cross-contact, the best way to stay safe is to avoid the food that has been in contact with the allergen. Anything that came in contact with the allergen should be washed thoroughly with soap and water.

Cross-contamination occurs when a contaminant gets on the food and makes it unsafe to eat for anyone, with or without a food allergy or intolerance. Most contaminants are some form of bacteria, virus, or mold.

Cross-contamination may lead to food-borne illness, or food poisoning. Although symptoms may be similar, this is not the same as having an allergic reaction. With cross-contamination, cooking the food in question may reduce or remove the chances of a reaction, though not always.

How cross-contact happens

There are many ways that cross-contact can occur when preparing or storing food. Cross-contact may occur either by two foods coming in direct contact with each other, or through more indirect forms of contact. Cross-contact can be invisible to the naked eye, as even microscopic traces of allergens can trigger a reaction.

Food/Food Contact

Food-to-food cross-contact occurs when an allergen-free and an allergen-containing food come into direct contact. At a salad bar, for example, wheat-containing crouton crumbs may accidentally spill into a container of normally wheat-free shredded carrots.

Food/Object Contact

Sharing the same utensils among different types of foods may cause indirect cross-contact. For example, a chef may use the same knife to slice both egg-containing bread and egg-free bread. Without washing the knife in-between uses, crumbs from the bread with eggs may stick to the knife and then be transferred to the egg-free bread during slicing.

Common cooking surfaces also can lead to cross-contact. A restaurant may use the same flat-top grill for cooking eggs, pancakes, and bacon. The common allergens of egg, wheat, or milk proteins may easily be transferred between these foods. Even though the bacon does not naturally contain egg, milk, or wheat proteins, it may pick some up from the shared cooking surface.

Food/Skin/Saliva Contact

This is another form of indirect cross-contact that can affect people with severe, highly sensitive food allergies. A person or animal that eats an allergen-containing food may transfer the allergen to someone else through their saliva. For example, a dog may eat a treat containing milk proteins. If the dog licks a person’s face, those proteins can be transferred by the dog’s saliva. A mother may eat peanuts before kissing her baby, leaving traces of peanut proteins on the child’s cheek.

How to avoid cross-contact

Avoiding cross-contact could be vital to your or your child’s health and safety. Planning ahead, staying alert, and asking the right questions can reduce your risk of cross-contact, both at home and dining out.

Prepare foods safely

●     Use separate utensils,dishes, and surfaces for making and serving different types of foods.

●     If that is not possible,make sure to use utensils and surfaces that have been thoroughly washed with soap and water when making allergy-safe foods.

●     When cooking different foods, prepare the allergy-safe options first.

●     Cover allergen-free foods and store them away from other foods.

●     After handling an allergen, thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water before you touch anything else.

●     Clean surfaces and utensils thoroughly with soap and water after preparing and cleaning up from meals.

●     Do not share foods, drinks, cups, plates, or eating utensils. Make sure your children know not to share these items.

●     Store and label foods at home as “safe” or “not safe” for allergies.

●     Don’t be afraid to ask people to wash their hands, whether they are your guests or hosts.

Plan ahead

When dining at a restaurant or another person’s home, it is important make your needs understood. Not all places are prepared to handle food allergy needs, but some advanced preparation can help you have a safe and healthy dining experience.

●     Let your host, server, or manager know of your food allergy needs; call ahead of time whenever in doubt

●     Make sure they understand the importance of cross-contact

●     Visit the restaurant website ahead of time to check the menu for safe meal choices

●     If you are not sure whether there has been cross-contact, stay safe and do not consume the food in question

Ask the right questions

Whether you are calling ahead of time or sitting down at the table, knowing what to ask can help you avoid cross-contact in your meal. Somethings you might ask include:

●     Is there a separate space for preparing foods for special diets?

●     Can they use separate cutting boards and utensils for the allergy-safe meal?

●     Does the restaurant use a shared grill or fryer for both regular and allergen-free foods?

●     Ask whether the servers will be preparing any part of your meal; this should not be the case, as the servers may not be aware of which spaces or utensils are allergy-safe.

●     Ask how the allergy-safe meal will be designated and delivered. The allergy-safe meal should be delivered separately, to avoid cross-contact.

●     Ask if your table can be sanitized to reduce the presence of allergen proteins.


OIT can makes cross contact less dangerous

Oral Immunotherapy is a treatment that helps people get past their food allergies. The primary goal of which is to be able to consume a full serving of the allergen with no adverse reactions.

Concerned about food allergies or intolerances? Whether you’re looking for a safer lifestyle or relief from allergy symptoms, the expert team at Aspire Allergy& Sinus is here.

Contact us for more information, or to request an appointment. We’re ready to help answer your questions and guide you through the process of navigating life with food allergies.

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About The Author:

Stacy Silvers, MD

Dr. Silvers is a board certified allergist specializing in environmental and food allergy diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Dr. Silvers oversees our allergy program and protocols, and also leads the food allergy and oral immunotherapy (OIT) program at Aspire Allergy & Sinus. Dr. Silvers is considered an expert in the field of food allergy diagnosis and treatment. In 2019, Dr. Silvers was named Best Allergist in the Statesman's Best of the Best Contest.