Family lobbies for clear, complete food labels
VALERIE MACDONALD Northumberland TodayKate Caldwell and daughter, Meaghan, 9, show the "epie" pen they use if Meaghan has a reaction to coming in contact with milk, eggs of peanuts. They are among the famiies lobbying local MP Rick Norlock and the federal government to pass legislation requiring clear food labelling in Canada.
NORTHUMBERLAND -- Meaghan Caldwell, now nine years old, was only nine months old when her parents, Kate and Kevin, of Cobourg started to notice problems when she drank milk. Letting her taste a bit of yogurt resulted in instant projectile vomiting and an outbreak of hives on the little tyke's body.
Kate says she reduced the amount of milk in her own diet but nurse her daughter.
Then one day Kate's mother, who had just eaten cheese curds, began rubbing lotion on Meaghan's eczema and everywhere Grandma touched her skin, Meaghan broke out into hives.
"The doctor just thought I was being a very sensitive, first-time mom," Kate recalls, but he did send her to Toronto's Sick Children's hospital to see a specialist, Dr. Milton Gold. The family found out the diagnosis: their 15-month-old baby was suffering due to an allergic reaction to eggs, peanuts and milk.
At first the Caldwells were overwhelmed with what their daughter's allergies meant to all of their lives. Grocery shopping became a time-consuming journey though a potential minefield of products that could either nourish Meaghan or take her close to death's door.
They became members of Anaphylactic Canada, as Gold had urged, and realized that learning about living with Meaghan's allergies was equally important to those around her. This included other family members, friends and, when she went to Kindergarten, her teachers and classmates who could potentially help or harm her with their actions.
A huge issue is cross-contamination, and so the family eats at home most of the time and searches through grocery store shelves, reading labels that are frequently incomplete and employ a long list of different names for each of Meaghan's allergic triggers.
"We can't eat out," Kate said.
Nor can the family buy ready-made take-out food like that provided at supermarkets. Even frozen pizzas are taboo. Only soy milk comes into the house.
Making a wrong choice can be dangerous, Kate discovered.
A visit to a store selling bulk foods, in order to buy an ornament for a cake, turned deadly when Meaghan started to cough and turn red. She was beside a bin where someone was scooping out ingredients and the allergens had become airborne and ingested accidentally by Meaghan. She complained her teeth were hurting, jumped up and down in agitation -- and by the time she reached the emergency department, the swelling in her throat and jaw area was only improved by epinephrine.
"(Thankfully) she had immediate relief (from it)," Kate said.
Until that visit to the hospital emergency ward, the family had been "somewhat in denial" about Meaghan's allergies, but this life-threatening incident made the issue far more black and white.
"Aside from learning (about these kinds of allergies) you have to step into an advocacy role. Everyone around us had to know" in order to keep Meaghan safe, Kate said.
More and more Canadians want to know more about what is in the food they are eating, Kate said. When people know more about allergic reactions, like those Meaghan has, they work with the family to keep her safe. At school, desks are washed after lunch and classmates wash their hands frequently so that they don't accidentally put Meaghan in harm's way.
The Caldwells are lobbying Northumberland-Quinte West MP Rick Norlock to speak to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq and his government to move two-year-old legislation -- that would have manufacturers more clearly label top allergens and do so in plain, clear language -- into law.
"Allergens should not be hidden in foods by alternate names or in component ingredients" such as "natural flavourings," Kate added.
"Like we said in our letter to Mr. Norlock, we feel we have to take a leap of faith at times when we feed our daughter. Did the company label the allergens clearly and did we read the label carefully and remember to check for that long list of alternate names for her allergens."
The legislation has been through two readings, there has been public input, it has been put in the Canada Gazette and the "health minister is making some changes" to the legislation but they are not expected to be major, Norlock told Northumberland Today.
Either the legislation will be put in the Gazette for a second time or it will go for final reading but the first option is most likely and then the process should be completed in no more than 18 months, Norlock said.
The Caldwells have been given an update on the process, Norlock said.
Food allergies are serious and the Caldwells have joined with several organizations like Anaphylaxis Canada to lobby the federal government to move forward more quickly.
If the stalled federal legislation is delayed too long, the process toward making manufacturers clearly and plainly label their foods containing key allergens will have to start at Square 1 again, the Caldwells and other lobby groups fear.