Seven Words That Started A Global Food Allergen Movement

February 5, 2021

2020 sparked a global movement calling for respect of every global citizen with
Black Lives Matter (BLM) following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis
police officer Derek Chauvin. It is estimated that 15 to 26 million people
participated in the BLM protests in the United States, making BLM the largest
movement in U.S. history. But many don’t know this movement began with a
single hashtag # BlackLivesMatter on social media by Alicia Garza in protest to
the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of African-American
teen Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. Once viewed as negative the tide
has since shifted with the majority of Americans across all racial and ethnic
groups supporting Black Lives Matter. And, on January 29, 2021, the BLM
movement was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Today it’s a three-word hashtag but back in 1993 it took seven words – “Don’t
play Russian roulette with our children.” – to start a global food allergen
movement.

This is a story about courage and wisdom and ultimate leadership. Let me take
you back to 1993. I was new in my senior executive role at the food
manufacturing trade association then known as Grocery Products Manufacturers
of Canada (now Food and Consumer Health Products Canada). Two or three
major nationwide food recalls had just occurred. The food industry had never
seen recalls of this nature. The cause was undeclared peanuts in products. The
trouble was peanuts were not actual ingredients in the products. Yet children
with known peanut allergies were having life threatening allergic reactions. This
was also a time when few had even heard about Anaphylaxis (severe life
threatening allergic reactions). I didn’t know how to pronounce or spell
Anaphylaxis.

Food Industry Pushed into a Corner

Well you can imagine, the industry was in turmoil, government was threatening to
regulate (regulate what we weren’t quite sure – because peanuts were not being
added to these products), it was gaining national media attention and no one
knew what to do. As an industry, we were successful in grouping very quickly
and felt that we needed to create an educational awareness program for
companies. We invited Anaphylaxis Canada to our meeting who in turn invited
parents of children with these severe allergies. I’ll never forget – the parents
arrived and proceeded to corner me in a room – they seemed very upset and
kept saying, ”Don’t play Russian roulette with our children.” Then one by
one they told me how their children had died. Mostly, at home because someone
had left a used knife with peanut butter on it on the countertop or hadn’t carefully
washed it afterwards. These parents had lost their children because they and
others were not well informed about the severity and causes of life-threatening
allergies. We all felt vulnerable and scared.

Moment of Truth

This was the moment of truth. We could have carried on with our educational
program or change course for these children. We chose to find the solution. We
undertook groundbreaking work – we reverse engineered product manufacturing,
ingredient sourcing, distribution and storage. And in that process, we discovered
in one case that cross-contamination had come in the final process. The nonpeanut containing product traveled on the lower conveyor belt and an upper
conveyor belt carried peanut-containing product and the two conveyor belts
crisscrossed ever so briefly.

What was shocking was that in this split second is where the cross-contamination
occurred. Even scarier was that these products were contained in sealed
packages and in sealed boxes – that meant we were dealing with fine dusting of
peanuts over the boxes of non-peanut containing product. Particles so small
they are not visible to the naked eye. In technical terms, this is parts per million
(PPM) or worse yet parts per billion (PPB) (testing wasn’t even available at this
level).

Vulnerability

This left consumers, manufacturers and governments vulnerable and forced us to
disrupt the system. As a result, the industry launched what became an awardwinning Allergy Beware program, developed new standards for manufacturing;
we launched at the request of the families “may contain allergen labeling” (they
wanted to know whether there was even a remote chance of cross-contact);
government developed inspection guidelines and we conducted intense industry
education at all industry levels. We also worked with Anaphylaxis Canada to ban
peanuts from classrooms and airlines. Then we launched early educational work
in school boards to help educate all Canadian families. This work lead to the first
peanut-free schools and peanut-free zones within Canadian schools.
After we got our collective “house in order” we took our message on the road
internationally. This was our biggest challenge trying to convince other countries
they had a similar problem. We eventually overcame this and our allergen
protocols became the international standard.

Why do I tell this story? As I said, this was a story about courage, wisdom and
leadership – by the group of parents committed to finding an answer to their
children’s avoidable deaths and the industry that listened and disrupted the food
system. I have been forever grateful to have had a lifetime’s worth of leadership
teaching in a single moment of truth – “Don’t play Russian roulette with our
children.” – it has stuck with me all these years.

Pandemic Calls for Food Systems Disruption

Why do I reflect on this now? 1993 was along time ago. However, we are in the
midst of a pandemic that has shone the light on the double burden of hunger and
obesity. Statewide stay at home orders resulted in millions of Americans losing
their jobs. Feeding America estimates that 50 million Americans, including 17
million children are going to bed hungry. COVID-19 is also punishing the world’s
least healthy and overweight/obese people with pre-existing chronic conditions,
such as heart disease and diabetes. The virus has acted as a catalyst, revealing
opportunity for – and, in some cases, forcing – much-needed changes in food,
nutrition, health and the agri-food systems. The pandemic is fast-tracking the
changes needed in everything from food composition to food distribution,
exposing a flawed system that leaves one questioning why unhealthy food is less
expensive than healthy food.

The time for talking is over. We need action. This is why I have launched my
company Food For Health. We need to redefine food and rediscover it’s
purpose. My vision is to work with industry leaders, health professionals,
government and other organizations on transformative and regenerative
strategies to build the future of food. #FoodForHealthMatters

I founded this consultancy to unite stakeholders from the food, agriculture,
government, academic and health sectors under a shared vision and voice.
Want to know more? Get to know me here.

Together, we can transform food and health in the U.S.

Tell me a little about your organization’s Food for Health challenges and I’ll send
you a link to book your complimentary 30-minute consultation. Get started here.

You could say I know a thing or two about food, nutrition, health and future trends and issues. I understand each stakeholder’s perspective and I am uniquely positioned to be able to help you understand what to do next.

Want to work together to improve nutrition and health for all Americans?