Good Morning! Today we are going to continue our discussion about how gluten sneaks into our food by talking about Cross Contamination or, as I found out, “Cross Contact” is the new phrase to use. I realize that when you hear that, the hair on your arm does not exactly prickle, but it is a very important topic!
As I was doing research for this and coming up with useful articles for y’all to peruse I learned something new about Cross Contamination. The correct term is now NOT Cross Contamination, it is Cross Contact. Cross Contamination is when bacteria comes in contact with other food, surfaces, knives, clothes, etc. and then can potentially spread illness if not cleaned and/or cooked properly. An example would be raw chicken being stored above salad mix, where the chicken can drip onto the salad mix.
Cross Contact is “when a residue or trace amount of an allergenic food becomes incorporated into another food not intended to contain it”. You can read the FDA’s article on food allergens and, specifically, Cross Contact here if you are so inclined. Here is another good article on the difference between the 2 if you would like further reading.
That was a fun trip down the rabbit hole, now let’s move on. So our term is now Cross Contact. Just remember many people refer to it still as cross contamination, so pay attention to both terms.
To take the FDA’s definition and make it a little more straight forward, we are talking about when an allergen like gluten gets in food where it’s not supposed to be. Great example of this is French fries! Fryers are one of the main sources of cross contact.
The Fryer Dilemma
In most restaurants due to space limitation and cost of equipment, fryers are a shared cooking environment. They do not cook just French fries or just fried chicken. Everything that is fried is cooked in the same fryer, or at least there are multiple products cooked in the same set of fryers. There is a high likelihood if you order fries that they are being cooked at the same time with chicken fingers. Or they were cooked in that same oil before your fries were put in.
Ask at the restaurant and most of the time the server will be able to tell you or find out for you whether the fryers are shared. You now have to make a choice based on your body. Am I sensitive enough to risk some amount of gluten (or whatever allergen) contacting my food and quite possibly hitching a ride into my stomach? I’m sure you have seen the stray piece of fried okra or chicken tender tip that ends up in your basket of fries occasionally. For me, I am not sensitive enough (or at least I tell myself this, heh) to worry about a mixed fryer. I take the risk knowing I could get sick, but for you it may not be worth it, and that’s ok!
Other Danger Areas
The cooking surface is the most common area in a kitchen where cross contact can occur. The fryer is really just a great picture to show us it can happen anywhere. It happens with cutting boards, serving spoons, stock pots, frying pans, etc. Restaurants want to keep everything clean, but a pan is not cleaned after every use. You are allowed by health code to use something for a certain amount of time before you have to wash it.
A great example is a frying pan that they cook shrimp in. So for a lunch rush they may have one pan they sauté garlic shrimp in. They will start using it around 10:30 AM, and then quite possibly not wash it until lunch is over, say around 1 PM. As a final step to the dish, they may throw cooked pasta in the pan at the last minute to combine all the ingredients. Clearly we do not want that to be what our shrimp is cooked in to go on our salad or just on the side with no noodles.
Most of the time if you request a clean cooking environment the restaurant will be happy to oblige. Ask for that clean pan to cook your shrimp, or that clean bowl to toss your Caesar salad with no croutons. It’s possible they may grumble and complain behind your back. As a former restaurateur myself though it is not an unreasonable request at all.
8 Places Cross Contact Occurs
Let’s look at 8 places we need to be concerned about cross contact occurring
- Fryers and Other Cooking Surfaces: As we already talked about fryers, sauté pans, mixing bowls, etc. are a huge risk for cross contact. Remember – always ask for a clean surface if possible.
- Bulk Bins at the Grocery Store: These are notorious for being capable of cross contact. Don’t get me wrong they can save you money and have fun tasty things in them. Bulk bins are not always cleaned between fill ups, and there is no guarantee there was not wheat flakes in the bin right before the almonds were dropped in.
- Bulk Condiment Containers: Do you share a jar of mayo at your house with your spouse who doesn’t have to eat gluten free? Or maybe a tub of butter? If so, I bet there are crumbs from both your GF bread and their wheat filled bread in there! Get a separate container for each of you or simply take what you want out of the jar first. Then apply it to your bread so you don’t spread crumbs.
- Buffet Lines: Do you love a good salad bar or all you can eat buffet? I know I do! Sure, everything is supposed to be totally cleaned before it goes in. They should also not be combining old and new product. Let’s be honest, though, lots of those places are very busy and time is limited. They are also staffed by people, just like you and me, who make mistakes and have a lot on their plates to do in a limited time. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go, just be aware!
- Hands: Hands should be washed. Period. Let’s ASSUME this always is happening in restaurants. What about at home? Does your spouse make their non-GF food and then make yours? Maybe you are a parent of a GF kid. Do you wash your hands after making your sandwich with regular bread and then go to make your child their sandwich with GF bread?
- Lips: Ok, I know this seems a bit silly but it’s true! I’m going to assume this is only applying to your spouse or significant other and not random people… Once again, if your spouse does not have to eat Gluten Free, or maybe you are the one who does not have to eat Gluten Free and they do. Are you aware of what you just ate when you kiss them? Did you just eat that piece of toast or Danish? Also a lot of cosmetics have a wheat based product in them. Is it the piece of toast PLUS the lipstick?!
- Prepared Foods: Do you love that chicken salad from your local deli? It’s so creamy and flavorful! Have you ever thought about how it’s prepared though? Sometimes a restaurant will use leftover chicken fried steak or similar to make chicken salad. They will pull off the breading, chop it up and mix it with everything else. Don’t get me wrong, this is great! It helps keep cost down for them and us and it keeps food out of the trash. As allergen avoiders, we just need to be aware it’s a possibility. Now don’t go knocking down the door of your local deli owner demanding answers because of me! When you are in next, just kindly ask if they ever do.
- Gloves: Gloves are another place in restaurants where cross contact can occur. Per health code, once again, you don’t have to change gloves every time you touch a new item. It’s time based and if you are doing something that will cause bacterial contamination. So not touching that raw chicken and then touching salad mix with the same pair of gloves. Lots of places use gloves to grab your ingredients, Mod Pizza being a great example, sandwich places, etc. Request a new pair of gloves to decrease the likelihood of cross contact. You can also request a new container of that food item, to really be safe, as well.
There are certainly more than these listed. Remember these are all accidental places. None of these situations included an intentional mixing of gluten containing products with something that is gluten free. Take the time to think, especially when out to eat, ask questions, and in the end, relax and enjoy. I don’t want to get sick from going out to eat either. If I’m so stressed out that I can’t enjoy the experience anyway, or make myself sick with stress, it’s just as bad.
Do you have another place where cross contact occurs? Let us know in the comments!
Have a tasty day,