A cooler look at potential allergens in foods being served in schools

The controversial “coffee and baked bean” debates have become a part of education in North America, where allergens come from foods – such as toffee, peanut butter, pasta, peanut oil, and so on. In some areas, people who have allergies actually go to school if there is milk or peanuts available; others are placed on a special diet. It can become a potentially very dangerous situation.

In Ontario, Canada, where I live, schools receive a voluntary food screening test called the Prepared Food Classification (PFC) certification. The food is sealed in plastic bags and is brought to the school in a canvas sack, or a locked container and placed in a sealed bag. The food is then approved by the nurse or school principal before being served. (Schools that do not follow the PFC certification receive a state license to serve food from the Ministry of Education, which they do not.)

However, a new study in Arthritis Care & Research suggests the screening tool is not reliable.

“Simply providing a food grade sample of a food item is not enough to determine if it can contain a particular allergen, according to Ontario research,” stated Arthritis Care & Research, which is a journal of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. “Since 2009, schools in Ontario have used the Ready-to-Eat (RTO) Prepared Food Classification to check for the presence of known allergens in foods served to their students.”

A team of researchers performed a meta-analysis of the data from 18 different pre- and post-certification studies of the food screening tool. They concluded that results reported in the pre-certification studies have been inconsistent, and that the PFC has the potential to be misused to inappropriately alert students or staff to allergies.

“Recommendations on food allergy-screening procedures should be based on science, rather than ideology, and should be based on the recognizability of allergens, rather than on diabolical thinking,” said Dr. Eleanor Itin, President of Arthritis Canada and Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at University of Toronto. “As regards preparing food, our priority should be to detect allergens – and failing to do so is like knowingly giving food to someone who is allergic to it.”

The Arthritis Care & Research team presented their findings at the 22nd International Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in Vancouver.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t test foods to see if they contain allergens – there is no way to know what can cause an allergic reaction in a small amount, no matter how small. But there are more effective tests out there for food allergies, than the one recommended for schools.

What’s needed now is for more research to be done in schools to gauge the effectiveness of the PFC procedure. This is something that should be reviewed every five years, not every three.

Case in point: West Foods’ peanut-free products are being recalled due to peanut allergies in some customers. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it is a question of “when” not “if” a student or staff member will die due to a severe allergic reaction to peanut allergen.

To read more about the pros and cons of food allergy testing and how to determine if a product could be allergens, you can go to A Closer Look At Food Allergies: A Practical Guide To Knowing About Your Allergic Reaction from Raritan Valley Community College Press.

Patricia Schulte is a Fox News health and medical contributor. She is a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor and the author of several books, including Love Rules: How to Marry, Live, and Raise Happy Kids.

Patricia Schulte joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999 as a health and medical contributor. Additional information can be found on her website, PatriciaSchulte.com.

Leave a Comment