I am a photographer and often photograph pets. I visit clients for in-home pet photo sessions and I volunteer at a animal rescue where I photograph all the pets to help them find their furr-ever homes. I had not thought about there being any chance of an allergic reaction while photographing pets, or about the risks of having a #peanutallergy and being around pets until recently. I have a adorable cat named Dinah and I always make sure to read her foods ingredients, but peanuts have never been an issue with any cat foods. Recently, I was at the rescue photographing a super cute dog in their outdoor play space. While I was working, I found that I kept looking down at my arm and thinking how it was feeling so itchy. I finally took a break from photographing and saw that my right forearm was covered in hives. I immediately went to the restroom and washed my arms repeatedly with soap and water. I started to panic, and just kept telling myself to stay calm. I came back out and asked the employee who I was working with if they had any peanut butter, or peanut butter treats, around for the dogs. She showed me a toy that that same dog had been playing with before I arrived that was a plastic ball filled with peanut butter!!! I calmly explained my serious allergy to peanuts to her and before I even finished she had removed the toy from the area where we were and washed her hands. She also brought me disinfectant wipes to wipe down my camera and everything of mine that was in the space. I stood outside the play area so I wasn’t breathing in peanut butter, which I would have been if we were indoors and this reaction could have been soooo much more serious. I felt so sad that the dog was jumping around trying to get my attention and super eager to return to playtime/modeling for photos; but I could not be around him anymore. He only licked my arm and I had a reaction, I was not going to risk a more serious reaction, what if he had licked my face?!?!?
This was a huge learning lesson for me. For many years I have been afraid to speak about my serious peanut allergy, wanting to protect myself from experiencing anymore bullying, being made fun of or being thought of as ‘taking things too far’. Part of why I started No Peanut Foods is to take my power back! I cannot and will not apologize for having a peanut allergy, and I will never again put myself in any situation I am not completely safe in. If this means I might miss out on a dinner because the restaurant has peanuts on their menu then so be it. If this means I cannot visit friends because they have peanuts out to snack on, then that’s how it goes. If this means I eat at home, and host parties instead of going out, then that is what I will do. The only way to stay safe is complete avoidance, and I am not willing to risk my life ever again to fit in!
I was impressed with how seriously the rescue center staff took my allergy once I alerted them to it. Now, when I visit the rescue, I remind the staff of my allergy and they do not bring out anything with peanut butter, and if any dog has had anything with peanut butter before I arrived, I don’t interact with that dog. I have learned to always speak up about my serious peanut allergy to ensure that I am safe.
You never know where peanuts might appear so always, always, always state your allergy. Do not be afraid of what others might think of you. What I have realized it that, sadly, food allergies are way more common than when I was growing up in the 1980’s. But, this means that since they are more common when I bring up my allergy most people understand the seriousness of a peanut allergy, and most are extremely understanding; those who are not I stay away from, and yes, I have lost friends because of this.
I hope that sharing my story helps you to feel empowered and not afraid to speak up about your food allergy!
Here are Some of My Tips to Stay Safe:
1. When you are going to a home call ahead of time and inform your host that you have a serious allergy. Make sure that if they have peanuts, or what you are allergic too, in their home that they put that away before you arrive. If there are any areas of the home where there were peanuts, I make sure to avoid those spaces so that there is no risk of exposure to peanuts based on trace amounts being still there.
2. Always call a restaurant/bar etc. before you go and ask if they, ‘have any peanuts or peanut oil in their kitchen or in their restaurant’. If they say they do, no matter weather peanuts are in a milkshake, desert, salad, in a beer, it does not matter, if peanuts are present at all in any form I do not eat there, or even enter the restaurant. I have had allergic anaphylactic reactions while at a restaurant due to cross contamination; this means that although the food that I ordered was free of peanuts, peanuts still ended up in my meal because something else in the kitchen contained peanuts. I have also had allergic reactions because peanuts were in the space because the food being cooked contained peanuts. I was enjoying a drink and did not have anything to eat, but just by breathing in the peanuts in the air I had an allergic anaphylactic reaction. My rule is you can never be too careful!
3. Always bring your own food, or eat before/after an event. Depending on where you are going, and how comfortable you are in the space, I usually eat after an event. If I am going to a friend’s get together then I bring my own food, and I eat out of the containers I brought and with my own cutlery. I recently attend a reception for an art show I was part of and even though they served hors d'oeuvres I made sure to not touch any of the food and did not have a drink as well. After the event I met friends at a local restaurant that I know is peanut free and enjoyed a meal that I knew was safe.
4. Remind a friend of your allergy every time! This is very important. In the story I retell above about my experience at the animal shelter I make sure to remind them of my peanut allergy every time I go. The staff makes sure that none of the peanut butter toys are out while I am there and if there is a dog that had any peanut butter that day I do not photograph them, or interact with them.
5. Always always always bring two epinephrine auto injectors. I carry two AUVI-Q® (epinephrine injection) with me, along with my inhaler. Whether I am going to a run errands, attend a concert, or to a friend’s home, it doesn’t matter. I always have those items on me in case of an allergic anaphylactic reaction.
6. Tell those who you are with about your allergy. I make a point of sharing my allergy with whomever I am going out with so that if I have an allergic reaction they know what to do, and what is going on. Make sure to tell them that you carry epinephrine auto injectors and what your plan is if you have a allergic reaction.
7.Only eat foods and use products that you know are both peanut free & are made in a peanut free facility. FDA regulations only require that food companies declare all 8 major US food allergens on their packaging if one of those items is present in the ingredients. The FDA does NOT require companies to list if a food or product is produced in a facility that also processes peanuts. What makes matters more confusing is companies sometimes voluntarily list cross contact risks, but most labels have no such statement. It is incredibly helpful when you see the 'may contain' warning because then you know without having to reach out to a brand, or check my lists :) if a item is safe. Just because there is no cross contamination warning does not mean the item is safe to have. I had an anaphylactic reaction one day after cooking salmon with rice. I could not figure out what I had eaten that had peanuts in it. After doing much research into everything I eat at that meal, from looking into the dried basil, to the jasmine rice, I found out that the olive oil that I used was processed in a facility with peanuts! So, I reacted due to cross contamination. The olive oil bottle did not have a 'may contain' statement, so I had no way of knowing the serious risk I was taking. I started looking into every single food and product I had in my kitchen to see what was truly safe and peanut free. I then created the No Peanut Foods site because I could not find any lists of safe products that also checked for any cross contamination risk and I wanted to share what I learned. You can check out my lists of foods and products that are peanut free and made in peanut free facilities here. I update my lists almost daily with safe, and not safe foods and products.