Internet information could be lifesaver

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 March, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 March, 2001, 12:00am

I recently unwittingly put at risk the life of my six-year-old nephew. The child suffers from G6PD. It is an inherited blood-enzyme deficiency by which ingestion of certain substances (and, for example, extreme stress) can produce headaches, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and a potentially life-threatening attack of acute hemolytic anemia. The food item on the list of prohibited substances is 'broad beans'.

I served my nephew a meal including a mixed bean salad (canned, from a local supermarket) having specifically checked that the banned bean was not included. However, just in time, the boy's mother identified some 'broad beans' in the mix. I agreed with her identification. Had I, as I often do, pureed the contents, they would not have been noticed, and the results could have been terrible. We re-checked the list of contents. Broad beans were not mentioned.

I then checked a number of sites on the Internet and discovered that the broad bean (which is actually a pea) is the most common name in English-speaking countries for Vicia faba L., which has the following alternative 'common names': fava, faba, feve, habba, windsor, English dwarf, pigeon, tick, bell, silkworm, and horse bean. Horse bean, a bean I had never previously encountered, was listed on the can I used.

I am hoping this letter will serve as a warning to anyone with a serious food allergy (whatever the cause or nature of that allergy). They must not rely on tables of contents, even for goods produced and marketed in countries which require and regulate their use.

Use the Web or your local library (Hong Kong is well served with them) to establish all the common names of your problem food. It took me less than 15 minutes to obtain the above information. I think this precaution is especially important in Hong Kong,where global sourcing - especially by supermarkets - may result in specific 'no-no' items being listed on labels under unfamiliar names.

I also urge the Department of Health to research and include this sort of comprehensive information on the advisory sheets issued to people suffering an allergy of this or any other nature.