If you have friends or family with food allergies (as I do), this may be the most important post you share all week: There is a giant, ongoing recall of cumin and products containing the spice due to undeclared peanut proteins. What's unusual is this recall has been building since December, with more and more foods (from taco kits and Cajun seasoning mix to beef and chicken) added and major retailers including Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods yanking products off their shelves.
Thankfully, no deaths have been reported, which is especially lucky considering that peanuts are one of the foods most likely to trigger a fatal anaphylactic reaction, according to Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). (The others are tree nuts and crustacean shellfish.)
The exact danger posed by a contaminated food "depends on the ingested quantity and the degree of sensitivity," explains Sami Bahna, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. "The reaction can vary from minimal rash to chest wheezing to airway obstruction, or anaphylactic shock. Some patients need to have an epinephrine auto-injector for immediate use." (My second-grader, Gus, is both peanut- and tree nut-allergic and must have his EpiPen with him at all times.)
To stay safe, first check your kitchen (including the fridge and freezer) and dump not only the recalled foods but any others that clearly contain cumin. Here's where it gets tricky. You can't always tell which spices are in that can of soup or frozen chicken patty, because manufacturers aren't required by law to specify exact spices—they are allowed to group them under "spices." How can that be? "Competition among food manufacturers requires some secrecy about the ingredients or recipes," says Dr. Bahna. "It took many years to get legislation to require the food industry to list on labels the 8 major food allergens."
Allergic Living points out that cumin is likely to be in many Tex-Mex and Indian foods, making them suspect. (As those of us whose kids have food allergies know, we're always in "better safe than sorry" mode.) Also key: Sign up for USDA food allergy alerts so you'll be first to hear if new products are pulled.
The welcome news, according to Dr. Bahna, is that these scares may be a little less scary in the not-too-distant future: "Research studies are going on for desensitization. In a few years, we expect the development of effective, safe protocols for building tolerance—at least against accidental exposure in the highly sensitive." Here's hoping.