Gomberg: My kid has developed a scary food allergy, then I talked to my sister and suddenly I feel lucky

(Marina Gomberg | The Salt Lake Tribune) Harvey Gomberg is allergic to cashews and pistachios. At least it is not sesame, which is just as dangerous, but doesn't have to be clearly labeled on foods.

My wife, Elenor, and I didn’t realize our son was having an allergic reaction until we noticed Harvey was scratching himself to the point of bleeding.

Buddy! What’s going on!?

Then he got a rash around his mouth and his ears began to swell until they looked like two mini brains attached to his cute toddler head. It was the combination of that and the voracious cough that, we’d learn later from the allergist, classified his reaction as anaphylaxis.

He is allergic to cashews and pistachios (a common coupling, evidently), so he was prescribed epinephrine injectors to use in an emergency. The injectors literally talk you through the process of administering the meds, which I imagine is helpful in a moment of sheer panic.

(Marina Gomberg | The Salt Lake Tribune) Harvey Gomberg is allergic to cashews and pistachios. At least it is not sesame, which is just as dangerous, but doesn't have to be clearly labeled on foods.

I was surprised it didn’t come with a side of Xanax for us parents, because anaphylaxis is ridiculously terrifying! It can be a rash one time and throat-closing the next — there’s no messing around and there can be very little room for error.

Our instructions were explicit: next time he has even the faintest reaction, we’re to inject the epinephrine into his little thigh and immediately go to the hospital. As the nurse at the ER told us — I think to encourage our compliance, but ultimately scaring me somewhat intensely — ”once their throats close, there’s little time before they’re done.”


So, this is our new normal — with anxiety permanently raised at least three notches.

Luckily for us (hard to believe I could muster that phrase right now), tree nut allergies are common enough (among the top eight which also includes milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, wheat and soybeans) that they’re designated by the Food and Drug Administration as “major food allergens” requiring them to be listed plainly on all food packaging.

So, at least there’s that. Sigh. We can keep a good eye out.

But that’s not the full story.

Marina Gomberg

El and I were talking about all of this with my sister, Joey, whose toddler, like Harv, is allergic to cashew and pistachios (yep, genetic), but he’s got a third trigger: sesame.

Guess what we learned sends one in three kiddos with this allergy to the hospital each year? Sesame. And guess what is the ninth most common allergy overall? You guessed it: sesame.

But guess what doesn’t have to be plainly listed on labels and can even be hidden by ambiguous names like “natural flavor” or more than 20 other things including: tanini, benne, benne seed, benniseed, gingelly, gingelly oil, gomasio, halvah, sesamol, sesamum indicum, and others? BINGO! SESAME!

What’s more is that companies like Heinz apparently require proof of an allergic reaction from a doctor before they’ll disclose if any of their products contain sesame, making parents choose between sharing medical histories or playing Russian Roulette with ketchup.

It’s everywhere. Hamburger buns, hummus, most Asian food (sesame oil), cereal, bread crumbs, chips, dressings, margarine, pretzels, I could go on.

And I’m pretty upset about it. How is this real life?! This prevalent (and delicious) protein is threatening thousands of people and nothing is being done (you’d think it was a gun or something).

So, picture me grabbing a saddle and slinging my leg over a beautiful steed, friends, because I’m about to get on my high horse, and I need your help (not getting on a horse — stop imagining yourself shoving me onto a pony).

Where I need your help is nudging the government. You know, the collegial lean-in-with-the-shoulder-but-I’ll-jab-you-in-the-ribs-with-my-elbow-if-I-have-to kind of thing.

They’re contemplating doing the right thing, and I want to encourage the crap out of that. Here’s why: I really want my nephew and all people who have sesame allergies to be able to survive their allergies — to live.

We’ll be in good company. The European Union, Canada, Australia and Israel all consider sesame a major food allergen and mandate that it’s specifically included on labels.

Alas, Congress has had a bill since April of last year to consider, but there’s been no action. My nephew, among thousands of others, have had potentially lethal exposures while our elected officials fail to act.

Please share this. Please call your members of Congress. Let us, together, help them move that piece of paper that might save thousands of lives.

Marina Gomberg is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at mgomberg@sltrib.com.