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Is Your Food Really Allergy Safe?
How Can You Tell if a Product is Safe for Your Child's Food Allergies?Understand Food Labeling and Call Manufacturers When in Doubt
Marlene Gonzalez stood in the grocery aisle, keeping a close eye on her severely peanut- and egg-allergic daughter while she carefully examined a box of a new variety of crackers. She read the ingredient statement; no mention of peanuts or eggs. She looked for a “contains” statement; there was one, and it merely stated “contains wheat.” She searched the package for the dreaded “may contain,” “made on shared equipment with,” or “manufactured in a facility that also processes” statement; there wasn't one. Then she examined the packages of the other three flavors of these crackers that were on the shelf, figuring that there was a high chance they were all processed on the same equipment. There was no mention of peanuts or eggs on any of them.
Marlene breathed a sigh of relief and placed the package in her cart. With no mention of peanuts or eggs anywhere on the entire product line, the crackers were safe for her daughter. Right?
Cross-Contamination Warnings are VoluntaryCross contamination refers to a food being inadvertently contaminated with food proteins other than those listed on the food label during the course of its being manufactured, prepared, stored or served. These traces of allergenic proteins can cause reactions in individuals having food allergies to those proteins.
In the U.S., the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, wheat, soybean, fish, or shellfish ingredients in all foods regulated by the FDA to be listed in plain English either in the ingredient statement or in a “contains” statement immediately after or adjacent to the ingredient statement. However, there are currently no laws governing the use of advisory labeling such as “may contain”- no regulations explaining what different versions of these warnings actually mean (i.e. a label may state “made in the same facility as” when it is actually “made on the same equipment as”), and no requirement that food manufacturers do anything to warn consumers of the potential cross-contamination risks of their products.
The use of the entire range of “may contain” types of statements is completely voluntary – if you see one, take it seriously, and avoid that product if it lists foods you need to avoid. But if you don't see one, don't make any assumptions about it being safe with regard to cross contamination issues. The manufacturer may not label its products to let you know that it “may contain” an allergen.
When in Doubt, Call the ManufacturerOften the only way to gauge the risk of a particular product is to call the manufacturer and ask a number of questions regarding their manufacturing, packaging, and labeling processes and policies – and even then there is no guarantee that the answers you receive will be completely accurate. As Paul Hamerly, President of Kitchen Basics® (a manufacturer of soup stocks packaged in shelf-stable cartons) explains, “The days of a food manufacturer controlling the food stuff from cradle to grave is long past. No manufacturer can completely control the source of supply, the production, and the transportation of their product. No one can be everywhere all of the time.”
What to Ask When You Call a ManufacturerWhen you do call a manufacturer, start by identifying yourself as the parent of a child who has severe, potentially fatal food allergies. State exactly what your child is allergic to and which product you are enquiring about. “Ask to speak with someone who is knowledgeable about the company's manufacturing, packaging, and labeling policies and procedures,” advises Jill Robbins, owner of HomeFree (formerly Gak's™ Snacks), who also does talks for consumers about manufacturing practices, labeling and cross contamination issues regarding food allergens. “If the first person you speak with does not seem particularly informed or helpful, ask to speak with his supervisor.”
Here are some questions to ask:
Evaluating the Answers You ReceiveThe reality is, your child needs to eat – but nothing is completely risk-free. The trick is to have a good feel for the severity of your child's allergies (this is something you should discuss with your child's physician) and to have enough information to be able to make an intelligent decision regarding the relative risk of a particular product.
Food allergy experts do advise those with food allergies to avoid products that carry any kind of advisory statements for the allergens they need to avoid and with good reason: a recent study showed that 10% of products had peanut protein in them when they were labeled with “advisory statements” such as “may contain”, “made in a facility that also processes...” and others 1.
By calling the manufacturer and asking about their allergen policies and the presence of allergens in their facility, you can gain enough information to make an informed decision about whether or not a particular product is likely to be safe for your child.
Some Manufacturers Cater to the Food Allergy MarketThere are some manufacturers that cater specifically to the food allergy market (many of which support KFA, see Allergy Buyer's Guide: Allergen-Free Foods); many usually take a wide range of precautions to ensure that their products are “free of” the stated allergens. These manufacturers often have attentive customer service representatives that can answer your questions to evaluate them with regard to your specific allergy needs.
For example, Jill Robbins spoke to us about what she does to ensure her company's baked goods do not contain any peanut, tree nut, egg, or milk ingredients. In addition to not allowing these ingredients in the facility (including in the break room), she takes steps to ensure that employees do not bring allergens in on their clothing or hands, she finds allergen-free sources for the ingredients that she does use, she tests her products for the presence of peanuts, almonds, eggs, and milk, and she takes additional precautions as well.
Most Manufacturers Do Not Cater to the Food Allergy MarketUnfortunately for us, most food manufacturers do not choose to go the extra mile to ensure that their products are safe for the food-allergic. The reality is, for these manufacturers the size of the food allergy market just isn't big enough to warrant the liability or risk they would undertake if they claimed a product was allergen-free.
Of course, as Jill Robbins is quick to point out, calling manufacturers and asking allergen-related questions is very important even if – or especially if – you do not end up purchasing products from a particular company. This is the most powerful way to encourage change! Educating companies about the importance of allergen safety for our families can make a big difference, over time, in their policy decisions.
1 Hefle, SL, Furlong TJ, Niemanna, L., Lemon- Mule, H., Sicherer, S., Taylor, SL. (2007). Consumer attitudes and risks associated with packaged foods having advisory labeling regarding the presence of peanuts. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Jul; 120 (1): 171-6.
Approved by KFA's Medical Advisory Team November 2008.