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Don’t assume bigger equals safer when it comes to food labels

Submitted by on Tuesday, 17 March 2009 3 Comments

Talk about good evidence but the wrong assumption.

New test results presented this week at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology’s annual meeting showed that 2 percent of foods without any type of allergy warning on the label really do contain allergens, HealthDay reports.

Products with the mysterious “may contain” warnings – ingredients that aren’t in the recipe but could sneak in at some point during manufacture – were contaminated 5.3 percent of the time.

About half the contaminated foods contained enough allergen to cause a reaction.

Disclaimers: This was a small study – 399 products – that looked only for the presence of egg, milk and peanut. Manufacturers are required to label for all Big Eight allergens – soy, tree nuts, shellfish, wheat and fish in addition to the ones tested.

Aside from the fact that they tested for less than half the allergens, it’s also troubling that researchers steered allergic consumers toward bigger companies.

“For what it’s worth, we could presume that small companies don’t have as much oversight,” said study senior author Dr. Scott H. Sicherer, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

It’s not worth much. Didn’t they read the Chicago Tribune investigative series this winter showing how many foods from big companies are recalled due to unlabeled allergens? And wasn’t Peanut Corporation of America a pretty big company?

It seems our family is the exception to just about every rule, because the one reaction to an unlabeled food – not one with a warning instead of a definite listed ingredient, but one with nothing at all - involved a major manufacturer.

If I’m going to take a chance – and I rarely do without careful thought about what other products the company makes that could possibly wind up contaminating the one I’m about to buy – I’d much rather take a chance with a small company that’s going to tell you straight up if there might be a problem.

It  happened just this weekend, when the guys spied packages of chocolate candy disguised as stones at a rock show. They were almost too cute to eat.

“Do you know if there’s any chance these contain peanut?” I asked the vendor.

“I know the guy who makes them uses peanut in other things, so I really can’t tell you. I wouldn’t buy them if I were you,” he said.

Oh my God. An honest, no-BS answer, and one that cost him a sale.

Contrast that to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which hid behind its standard hedge in discussing the new research.

“We support the use of science-based criteria by food and beverage companies in determining whether or not a supplemental or ‘may contain’ allergen advisory on a food product label is necessary,” a spokesman told HealthDay.

That’s spin speak for “we don’t want the Food and Drug Administration to tell us what warning labels mean and when we have to use them.”

What’s meant by “science-based criteria” is unclear. It’s been clear in the past, though, that manufacturers can’t and won’t make any guarantees.

“Although the food industry is diligent in its efforts to prevent major food allergens from inadvertently ending up in food products, the nature of the food supply and our manufacturing processes in some instances makes it impossible to avoid,” an industry policy adviser told the Food and Drug Administration back in 2001.

So there it is, the no BS answer we’ve all wanted: Despite all the pretty words on corporate Web sites stressing concern for allergic customers and care in manufacturing, they can’t always make guarantees.

I’ve said this many times, but I don’t expect them to. The cost of a pristine food supply for my child would be exorbitantly pricey grocery bills for everyone else. I just want a little honesty.

Tell me, without parsing like “science-based criteria,” if this is one of those times when you can’t make that guarantee.

They’re not going to do it, though. Unlike the guy at the rock show this weekend, they’re too afraid the truth is going to hurt sales.

Joke’s on them in my case. After our experience in the fall when Big Guy reacted to an unlabeled cereal bar, we’ve been back to a strict program of home baking. If I, and other parents of allergic children, could trust companies to follow set guidelines for what gets a warning label and when, I might be convinced to buy from them again.

Until then, I’ll stick with small companies that will at least give you straight answers.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Pam said:

    Excellent post!

  • Anton Xavier said:

    Some very nice points.

    There are definately arguments for and against each side of this argument. And, to be honest, I believe that both sides of this discussion are right. Frankly, there are some small manufacturers who don’t care as much as your stated example as there are large manufacturers who do not have sufficient systems in place to monitor cross contamination.

    On the other hand, there are some large manufacturers who monitor their processing very very well as there are small manufacturers who will do whatever it takes to protect their consumers.

    It’s a complicated issue with considerable logistical challenges and although it is no-where near perfect, with vast experience in food labelling data, I can assure you it is getting better year on year.

    For the time being though, your advice, “better safe than sorry” is the best action to take.

    Anton Xavier CEO foodessentials.com

  • erin pickering said:

    I agree wholeheartedly! excellent post.