Monday, November 22, 2010

Maybe, Maybe Not – A Rant on Food Allergen Advisory Labels

Chances are if you are reading this blog you already know that in the US, the top eight food allergens need to be clearly called out on all food product labels, either in the list of ingredients themselves, or called out in a “contains” statement (e.g. contains milk). This of course is for the ingredients that are intended to be in the product.

But what about unintended ingredients? What about those pesky advisory labels? I’m talking about those optional labels that say things like:

“May contain tree nuts”

“Processed in a facility that also processes wheat”

Or the ever confusing:

“Precautions were taken to segregate ingredients…”

These warnings are inconsistent in their wording and in their usage, making it close to impossible to know how to interpret them. If something “may contain” an ingredient, then it’s also possible that it “may not contain” that same ingredient. If manufacturers include warning labels does that mean they are just being good citizens and fully disclosing? Or does it mean that there actually is a higher chance of the product containing that ingredient than the manufacturer who just doesn’t include any warnings at all?

The Food Allergy Initiative recently reported on the results of a study
that took a look at allergen labeling. The study examined cross-contamination of ingredients in foods with and without warning labels. They found the allergens they tested for in 5.3% of products with advisory statements and in 1.9% of similar products without advisory statements. Also interesting was the fact that small companies were five times as likely to have contaminated foods (5.1%), as large companies (0.8%).

These results would suggest that those with food-allergies are best off if they stick to products without warning labels, and buy from large companies.

Take this quick poll:

What is your approach to food allergy warning labels?

Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I'll be back posting next week with some post-holiday food ideas.


Sarcelay said...

Happy to see this post. This is one of my major pet peeves. The law should require standard labeling. If there is a chance a food "may contain" an allergen-say so. If it's same equipment, say so! check out my blog

Colette Martin said...

Sarcelay, glad you found me! Yes, we agree. Clarity is so important when it comes to food allergies. I checked out your site. Really nice! said...

So glad you posted this. While my son was diagnosed 2003 with multiple anaphylactic food allergies BEFORE labels and I try to have GRATITUDE the vague language can be so infuriating.

Colette said...

Susan, you make a great point -- before the labeling laws we were definitely worse off. Now we at least know what is supposed to be in the products we buy.

Kate said...

I didn't vote in the poll b/c I'm not sure my answer fits any of the choices.
We avoid: "may contain" and "shared equipment" labeled foods.
We eat: "same facility" and "good practices used to segregate..." foods.

Colette said...

Kate, thanks for clarifying. You're right that not all warnings are equal.

Libby said...

Hi Colette,
Just found your site and have enjoyed scrolling through. Those results are really interesting. Thanks!

Colette said...

Libby, glad you found me! Welcome!

Libby said...

Wow, what are the odds of more than one Libby on this thread?

How many times have I told my food allergic son, "If you don't know, don't eat it!" We don't go near anything with a facility/equipment warning. I don't care how good their cleaning practices are! The only times I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt is when a company actually uses a lab to test for allergens, which is rare.

Colette said...

The more Libby's the merrier! To the latest Libby -- thanks for sharing your thoughts.