“No room for error”: Keeping Halloween food safe for children with allergies

Community awareness and food safety education, like that offered through MSU Extension, can help all kids have a safe and happy Halloween experience.

A child holding a decorated Halloween pumpkin.
Photo: Pexels/Charles Parker.

From haunted houses to spooky movies, Halloween is supposed to be filled with fun and frightful surprises. But for children with food allergies, this time of year can often turn too scary.

“There is no room for error when it comes to food allergies,” said Samantha Gaudino, a parent in Delta County whose son, Shepard, has severe allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, apples and peaches. “Some children may have a slight rash, hives, or a stomachache, while others may have more severe systemic reactions affecting breathing. There is no test to predict the severity of a reaction and each one can be different from the last.”

Shepard’s favorite holiday is Halloween, but for too long, the risk of exposure to an allergen clouded the festivities.

“As a parent, you are filled with fear when [an exposure] happens,” she said.

In particular, trick-or-treating — a quintessential Halloween activity — has posed a challenge for kids like Shepard. It’s difficult to know all of the ingredients each kind of candy might contain, or if candy has been in contact with a particular allergen.

“Children with food allergies are just like every other child,” Gaudino said. “They want to celebrate and participate the same way any child would, by putting on their costume, going to events, and trick or treating.”

Through community awareness and education, though, children with food allergies and intolerances can participate in the holiday fully.

Spreading awareness in communities

Community initiatives like the Teal Pumpkin Project are one way to keep children safe.

Gaudino participates in this initiative, which encourages communities to offer nonfood treats like bouncy balls or stickers to children with food allergies or intolerances, and put them in an easily recognizable teal pumpkin container.

“The Teal Pumpkin Project made me feel like my child was heard and seen,” she said. “It reminded me that food allergies do not have to define his childhood and that there are so many incredible people who will make the simple accommodations to make him feel included.” 

To recruit more families in her area to join the efforts, Gaudino has been getting the word out to her community through posters, social media, and even her local Downtown Development Authority.

“When I saw that not many participated in our community, I knew I had to try and get the word out,” she said. “Seeing how wonderful our community came together for things in the past made me realize this wasn’t an instance of people not caring, it was an instance of people not knowing.” 

The importance of education

Learning about key food safety principles can also help.

“Food safety education is important because it’s all about trying to reduce risks of foodborne illness,” said Stephanie Ostrenga Sprague, an MSU Extension food safety educator in Delta County. Having friends and family with allergies, she became involved with the Teal Pumpkin Project in an effort to be inclusive to kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate fully in the holiday.

In particular, when it comes to food safety and food allergies and intolerances, avoiding cross-contamination and cross-contact are crucial. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “cross-contamination is when harmful bacteria are transferred from a food to another food,” and cross-contact is “when the food allergen or gluten is transferred to a food meant to be allergen- or gluten-free.”

Food safety behaviors that reduce the risk of cross-contact are important, because even the smallest amount of food proteins might cause a reaction, Gaudino said.

“Understanding cross-contamination [and cross-contact] is so critical for young children who don’t yet have the capacity to advocate for themselves, practice proper hygiene and take the precautionary measures that adults do,” she said. “Children notoriously also like to share snacks and surfaces, making it more difficult to control.” 

To avoid issues with cross-contamination or cross-contact, Ostrenga Sprague recommends washing your hands for 20 seconds, cooking food to a safe temperature, and cleaning and sanitizing food prep surfaces and other surfaces that have contacted food items.

“It can sound complicated, but these are not preferences that people have, these are allergies that can be life-threatening,” said Ostrenga Sprague. “Even an intolerance can make someone very sick. It’s important to do what you can to avoid cross-contact and accidentally introducing an allergen into someone’s food or contact surface.”

Even for those who may not think they know anyone with a food allergy or intolerance, increased awareness and food safety knowledge and practices can help keep people healthy and even save lives.

“There are high chances that you know someone or will come across someone with a food allergy in your lifetime,” Gaudino said. “Being educated is a simple way to help keep everyone safe.”

To get involved in the Teal Pumpkin Project, visit the Food Allergy Research and Education website. For more information and resources and to find an MSU Extension food safety class in your area, visit our Safe Food & Water website.

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