When a trip to the supermarket involves a lot of small print

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Rosemarie Rymer summons her reserves of patience when she visits supermarkets near her home in Wimbourne St Giles, Dorset. While other shoppers carelessly hurl food into trolleys, Rosemarie must laboriously scrutinise the labels on every can, packet and wrapper. She dare not buy anything containing peanuts. Her youngest son, Nicholas, aged six, suffers a potentially fatal allergy that sends him into convulsions and causes severe breathing problems.

"I look very carefully at everything I buy," she says. "An awful lot of foods contain peanut oil - even ice-cream cones. It takes me a long time to get round a supermarket. Often vegetable oil is listed in the ingredients without specifying what type. There are a lot of things I'm not sure about like fish fingers. Some toiletries contain Arachis oil which is derived from peanuts. I don't know how people cope who are allergic to fish, wheat or dairy products.

Nicholas was 18 months old when he bit into a peanut butter sandwich. Two hours later he went into convulsions. His next attack, again caused by peanut butter, came at a birthday party when he was three, followed by a recent incident caused by an unknown trigger. He travels with an EpiPen which can be used to deliver a life-saving adrenalin injection.

"The first time he had an initial reaction of swelling and hives. A couple of hours later he had difficulty breathing and was throwing himself about. It was terrifying."

The labelling of ingredients has improved enormously since 1994 when 17-year-old Sarah Reading died after eating a dessert containing crushed peanuts. Her father, David, launched the Anaphylaxis Campaign which now has 3,100 members. He reckons that one in every 80 children has a mild nut allergy with one in every 400 suffering a more severe reaction.

"Supermarkets are quite good at labelling but restaurants are riskier. If members aren't sure about a product, I encourage them to contact the manufacturers to find out and to raise awareness of the dangers. The most common severe allergies are to peanuts, almonds, walnuts and sesame seeds. A small number are highly allergic to milk, eggs and even fruit. About six or seven deaths a year are attributed to anaphylactic shock, but the real figure is probably higher," says David Reading.

Sainsbury's produces booklets listing nut, soya, milk, egg, gluten and shell fish-free products. The nut booklet runs to 33 pages and lists more than 2,000 nut-free products. There is also a telephone help-line.

Marks & Spencer labels products in large lettering with the words "contains nuts" or "contains peanuts". A list of nut-free products is available in stores. Tesco has a range of fact sheets and leaflets giving advice on food allergies and also a telephone advice service.

Many stores are reluctant to guarantee products are free of nuts in case they have been accidentally contaminated. Mark Hodson suffered a severe allergic attack after eating Sainsbury's pesto sauce. An investigation found the Italian supplier had made walnut sauce on the same day it made the pesto.

"We want manufacturers to improve staff awareness and education and for cleaning equipment to be improved to counter the problems of cross contamination," says Mr Reading. "Labels that say 'May contain nuts' are irritating. They whittle away choice and confuse the customer. A diet can become limited when there are so many products people dare not eat."