When food is a killer.


Hi, my name is Jo. I am a nice person, not at all unreasonable. If you met me you’d like me. We’d have coffee and get along. But you hate me, because I’m the reason you can’t pack peanut butter, Nutella or trail mix in your child’s lunch.

My son Philip was born with food allergies to egg and nuts. Anaphylaxis is not like a gluten ‘allergy’. When he eats egg or nuts his body mistakes the protein in these foods for poison and tries to close all his airways to prevent the poison coming in….resulting in asphyxiation. Philip is eight this year and some of his nut allergies are getting better but if he has any of the foods he is allergic to, he starts to cry. He feels dread and panic. His face swells, his tongue swells, he becomes flushed, distressed and he needs a shot of adrenalin in his thigh to prevent death.

When I fell pregnant with my first child I planned to be a cool, calm and collected career mum. I planned to keep working, hire help and raise a relaxed and loving child. From day one he vomited my breast milk. We thought it was reflux. I persevered for weeks but he vomited so much I became worried, so I switched to thickened formula and he started to thrive. It wasn’t until we were on a holiday in Tweed Heads that I first suspected food allergies.

We were having lunch in a shopping centre food court. Philip was five months old and loved sucking on my fingers due to teething. I’d just eaten some chicken schnitzel. He sucked on my finger, began to cry and broke out in hives. We rushed him to hospital and they said they couldn’t confirm a food allergy but said it was definitely an allergy to something.

Back in Sydney he was tested at Sydney Children’s Hospital. He came back as allergic to egg, nuts, dog hair and dust mites. I was told to keep him away from these foods until he turned two. Then we’d re-test him and see if he’s improved.

I was devastated. How could my son be allergic to food? I’m Italian. I ate everything while I was pregnant. I had a healthy pregnancy and there were no food allergies in my family. He was the first and we all had trouble dealing with it.

When a food allergy is first diagnosed, you panic. You throw out all foods that list the allergens as an ingredient. You pressure your family not to serve the offending foods in your child’s presence. Allowing the foods he’s allergic to in the same room as him felt like leaving a loaded gun on a table within reach. You don’t eat out. You slap foods out of your child’s hands when you suspect it isn’t safe. When food becomes deadly, life as you know it is gone forever.

I am happy that nuts are banned in pre-schools and primary schools. The kids are too little to look after themselves and are too small to handle exposure to their allergen. It might comfort you to know that I suffer as a result of this ban too. My four-year-old isn’t allergic to anything. He only eats Nutella sandwiches so I struggle to pack him foods he likes for his pre-school days. He likes ham wraps but if I run out of ham I have a problem because he won’t touch jam or vegemite. Peanut butter is out. It’s frustrating.


That being said, I would be devastated if any food I packed resulted in the death of a child. Have you ever thought of that? How would you feel if the peanut butter sandwich you snuck into their lunchbox made another child gravely ill? How would your child feel? Yes it’s sometimes tough to think of healthy foods to pack in their lunch but we go to so much effort to keep children safe, isn’t this worth the effort too? We walk them to the bus, if we see a lost child we help them…this is just another way we as a community take care of our children.

Just before school began this year, news came through that Ammaria Johnson, a seven-year-old Virginia girl, died after an allergic reaction at school when she was given a peanut by another child. The school didn’t have an epiPen. Another preventable death.

Food allergies are reaching epidemic proportions. Seven years ago when my son was first diagnosed most people had heard of peanut allergies but were surprised by the egg and tree nuts. So was I, so I still am.

Doctors don’t know why food allergies are occurring. There are so many differing theories. My family laughed when I told them about the ‘too clean’ theory. My house is anything but squeaky clean. They know families with a history of asthma and eczema tend to have allergic children. It’s so frustrating. Food isn’t meant to kill, but sometimes it does. Thank you for following the guidelines. Thank you for not packing peanut butter and Nutella in your children’s school lunches. I will continue to work to enforce the regulations and report breaches to keep not only my child safe but all children with food allergies. I can’t relax and I can’t let up because last year Philip was given foods twice in class that I hadn’t checked. Mistakes are still made. We have to keep food allergies top of mind. I make mistakes, my son’s teach made mistakes and more mistakes will be made.

Keeping children safe in any regard takes a layered approach, not just one. To keep them safe from drowning we teach them to swim, build pool fences, supervise them and learn CPR. To keep them safe from abduction we teach them about stranger danger, keep an eye out for strangers around schools, supervise them and teach them how to get away. To keep them safe from food allergies we teach child carers about food allergies, keep them away from allergens as much as possible, teach them not to share food at school and keep epiPens nearby. Save your peanut butter, Nutella and trail mix for home.

Jo Abi is the author of the book How to Date a Dad: a dating guide released by Hachette Livre Australia. Her first love is being a mum closely followed by writing about being a mum. You can read more about her many and various exploits here.

Do you have or know someone who has food allergies? How do you handle it?