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Labeling foods isn't enough

January 16, 2005 1:09 am

A YEAR FROM NOW, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act signed by President Bush in August will become law.

The legislation will require food manufacturers to identify, in plain language, the presence in their products of any of the eight major food allergens: milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, wheat, or soy.

It will also help stem the longstanding threat of previously exempt "hidden ingredients," requiring food labels to indicate the presence of such allergens in spices, flavorings, additives, and colorings.

This is a big deal, given that an estimated 11 million Americans suffer from food allergies. Some 30,000 Americans obtain hospital treatment for reactions each year, and 200 of them die, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

But the legislation is no panacea. In fact, given the real-world experiences a food-allergic person faces, it is little more than a good start.

Allergen labeling is to the food industry as seat belts were to the auto industry. Both industries used their power to stifle government and organizational reform efforts as long as they could, citing the expense and questioning the value. While the food manufacturing and service industries may comply with the letter of the new law, will they comply with its spirit as well?

In recent years, major cookie and candy manufacturers have gone wild with "may contain" warnings and cross-contamination alerts, such as "produced on machinery used for products that include peanuts."

It is, in fact, difficult to find on grocery store shelves any candy or cookie whose label doesn't have such a warning. That's just great, except for a peanut-allergic child, such as my daughter, who likes treats as much as any child.

Such warnings are not intended to protect the consumer as much as the litigation-exposed butts of lazy, penny-pinching food-manufacturers.

Some health-food stores offer allergen-free brands, but they generally, with all due respect, don't taste very good.

The legislation calls on the government to inspect food-manufacturing facilities in coming years with the intent of reducing or eliminating the threat of cross-contamination.

The government will find, as my wife and I have found, that some manufacturers are more cooperative than others.

Spokespersons for some major manufacturers have said that they would have to clean their machinery between batches to avoid cross-contamination, which would be costly and time-consuming. Well, if that's what it takes, start cleaning.

Maybe the answer, for peanut or tree nut contamination, is nut-free plants. Big companies such as Keebler and Nabisco should be able to come up with solutions. Manufacturers respond to fads like low-carb diets in the blink of an eye. But they've acted glacially on food-allergen issues, which aren't going away.

Through our research over the years, done mostly by my wife, we've learned that exposure to traces of allergens such as peanut may not cause an immediate reaction in a peanut-allergic person. Repeated trace exposure, however, could some day bring on anaphylaxis--a sudden, potentially fatal, systemic reaction that could involve the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract, or cardiovascular system.

For that eventuality, my daughter at all times either carries or has quick access to her EpiPen, an epinephrine injector designed to treat reaction symptoms until emergency medical help is available.

After living with the threat of a peanut-induced allergic reaction for the best part of my daughter's 8 years, we've grown to appreciate companies that take the issue to heart. We're always on the lookout in the grocery store for new foods she can try, particularly individually wrapped treats that can be kept at school. She understands the risk of sharing homemade birthday cupcakes that classmates bring in.

At the store a few months ago I picked up a box of Moon Pies, of all things, flipped it over, and found the statement: "Our company DOES NOT manufacture any items with peanuts, tree nuts, eggs or milk."

Other shoppers in the aisle were startled by my "Woo-hoo!" as I stood there, fist in the air. I e-mailed a thank-you note to the Chattanooga, Tenn., company.

Of course we want to know that something is risky, but it is more helpful to know that something is safe.

Restaurants pose a special challenge to anyone who is food-allergic. The new legislation includes a requirement that the government pursue allergen-free preparation guidelines for food service establishments. But it's hard to envision a time when visiting a restaurant won't raise red flags. We don't eat out very often.

The industry is beginning to pay attention. According to an editorial in the trade publication National Restaurant News, "From quick service to fine dining, operators are looking at ways to improve their menus, the ingredient information they dispense to customers, and the allergy-related training of their staffs."

We are always elated to discover places that respond understandingly to our concerns, and that have ready access to the ingredient lists for the dishes they prepare.

Too often a server expects us to be satisfied that he is "pretty sure" the kitchen doesn't cook its french fries in peanut oil--a fairly common practice. "Pretty sure," however, doesn't cut it.

Recent experience suggests that if we pursue ingredient or cross-contamination questions with a manager or chef, they will either a) produce the information needed to reassure us, or b) offer no "guarantees" about anything on the menu and suggest that boiled pasta, plain except for butter, would be a good choice.

My daughter shouldn't feel that she needs to apologize for having a food allergy. If restaurant menus can indicate which dishes are carb-free, they can indicate which are free of certain allergens.

Legislation is a necessary step in assuring food-allergen safety, but it is important that restaurants and manufacturers become aware and act on their own volition. That's the best way for us all to enjoy increased confidence in the foods we eat.

RICHARD AMRHINE is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.





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