Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Food Allergies and Food Labels: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Check out this photo of a label from Breton Multigrain Crackers. From my perspective as a consumer looking to avoid even traces of peanuts or tree nuts, the label I share in the photo should be one of the "good ones." It is clearly marked with regard to any nut ingredients and clearly states that the product is made in a nut-free facility. Does a label that states clear nut allergy info boost my interest in buying the product? Absolutely.

However, take another look at the label. This particular flavor also includes sesame seeds and an allergy to sesame is on the rise, so this ingredient may be a concern to some of you reading this right now. Before we get too angry at the company, though, a quick note: sesame is not one of the "Top 8" allergens and the allergy warning in bold type on this package is totally voluntary. They didn't have to put it there, but they did.

I'm talking labels because soon those of us in the U.S. will be talking turkey--as in Thanksgiving and many of us are going to be eating at the homes of family and friends. Label reading is crazier than ever these days and food labels with regard to allergy warnings are changing like the leaves in autumn.

Consider the new labels for Ragu spaghetti sauce. Now, any time of year people are serving spaghetti and tomato sauce. I make my own--taste preference as well allergy concerns factor into this decision--so I'm not a regular Ragu customer. Howevever, I came across a troubling label discussion on the page of one of my food allergy Facebook friends. Turns out Ragu has changed some of their sauce labels to reflect nut allergy warnings due to new manufacturing lines/locations.

Oh, dear. But the thing is: This happens ALL THE TIME. Here's what Ragu had to say when I questioned them on their Facebook fan page:

Hi Jenny! We totally understand your concern about nuts in our sauce. As of 2/10, some labels of our Traditional sauce stated that the product may contain tree nuts. This is because a little amount of this sauce was produced at a different plant, thus there will be an "L" in the date code instead of a "Y" so if you want to be extra cautious, check the date code. An example of a date code would look like this: JAN2211YU010302A1. We do NOT put nuts to our Old World Style Traditional - we had to put that different label # on there just for precautionary reasons. We regularly test for allergens at that facility to ensure our products meet the highest standards quality regardless of production – and to date, no allergens have been found. As we’re sure you know, you can never be too safe – so you can stick with any date code that contains a “Y”. Thank you for your concern and we hope this information is helpful!

I know. I'm a little confused after reading that as well. However, that's all I know--if you want more info from Ragu, please ask them directly.

Additionally, the law that requires the "Top 8" allergens (egg, milk, soy, tree nut, peanut, shellfish, fish and wheat) to be listed on a food label doesn't cover other allergens and does not require any additional allergy warnings in bold type. Allergy alerts in bold type are totally voluntary under current U.S. law. Only the ingredients need to be listed in "plain English." If you have any questions, I encourage you to do your homework (as I do) and contact the companies directly. The more noise they hear, the better chance they may actually create a label that's easy to decipher as well as (fingers crossed, always!!) accurate.

The bottom line is to always, ALWAYS read food labels and inspect them before serving to an allergic person. You also want to start alerting your family now if you notice any changes in food labels you've used safely in the past.

Any other food label issues you'd like to sound off on? Readers, let's hear it. If possible, share the outcomes of any e-mails you've sent or phone calls you've made.


Ali said...

My beef lies with beef and other meats. The labeling law doesn't apply to food regulated by the USDA, meaning soy could be lurking under the guise of "vegetable protein" and any number of innocent looking aliases. I also find her allergens in medications and cosmetics. DD has allergies to peanuts, soy, egg and dairy. Luckily they are all top 8... but why can't the law apply across the board to anything that goes on your skin or in your mouth?

Lindsay said...

One thing that stood out to me in the label you posted was coconut. Isn't coconut a tree nut? If so, shouldn't the label say that the product contains tree nuts?

I seriously hope that one day it will be required for companies to 1) post allergy alerts in bold; and 2) post "may contain" statements (if there is a potential for the top allergens to be present in the product). If these types of things were standardized, it would save us all a lot of time and it would be much, much safer.

Lastly, in regards to "plain English," cosmetic companies (not just food companies) could use some label updating as well! They tend to use biological names for ingredients, instead of the common name. I'd like for them to at least put the common name in parentheses after the biological name. For instance, I've seen "arachis oil" in eyeliner, among other products, but I assume most people don't know that arachis oil is peanut oil? It throws consumers off, and could be problematic for people with allergies!

Jenny said...

Lindsay, so glad you brought this up. Coconut is not a tree nut, even though the FDA is currently calling it one.

As explained to me by my allergist, despite its botanical name, coconut is a fruit. Some people are allergic to tropical fruits, of course. But coconut is not a tree nut. Why the FDA decided to call it one--I'm not sure. I think it speaks to the general confusion about nut allergies, even among the so-called "experts."

Ali and Lindsay, I would need a whole new blog post to discuss labels on non-food items. The food labels made for a long enough post! :) Lotions, soaps, etc. most definitely should be labeled with regard to allergens in plain English and not scientic terms that many people won't understand. Absolutely. That's why I shy away from complicated or "upscale" products for my daughter--they normally contain almond or some other nut oil.

I will talk about non-food allergenic items in a future post--clearly this is needed! Thanks, Jenny