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Food industry 'nuts' need to act, not merely be aware

April 20, 2008 12:16 am

WE TOOK a won- derful spring- break vacation to Arizona that of course included a round-trip plane flight and lots of eating out--not to mention seeing some of America's greatest natural wonders. Such a trip takes a family with a peanut-allergic child outside of its comfort zone of home-cooked foods and known allergy-friendly restaurants.

Peanut-allergy awareness has risen over the past decade along with the number of people affected, but it's unfortunate that so many hurdles remain for these and other food-allergic people. The hurdles are erected by everyone from the server who comes to your restaurant table, to the largest national food-producing conglomerates.

Some restaurant servers are very understanding, for which we are always appreciative. One national chain we know, Chili's (and maybe others we're not aware of), has a menu supplement listing the ingredients in each menu item. That's good PR.

On the other extreme is the occasional server whose reaction to "I have a peanut allergy and need to be sure what I'm ordering will be free of nuts, peanuts, or peanut oil" is a blank stare and a delayed "You what?"

After visiting with a superior of some sort, the server returns to say, "We don't offer any guarantees about anything on the menu."

This information is unresponsive and irrelevant. Would you prefer that we leave? We simply want to know the prevalence of peanuts and nuts in the menu items and if care is or can be taken to prevent cross-contamination, such as avoiding unwashed cooking utensils that were used to prepare any nut-containing dishes.

I submit that this is not too much to ask, assuming that utensils do get washed.

Current statistics show that about 12 million, or 4 percent of Americans, are allergic to one or more foods. Peanut allergy affects 1.3 percent of Americans, which may not seem like a lot. But if four of 100 diners who come to a restaurant have food allergy issues, why not be prepared to deal with it intelligently? They'll be more likely to come back.

On our return flight, the attendant came through with snacks. You could get a bag of peanuts, or you could get a bag of pretzels. On the pretzels there is the warning: "Manufactured on equipment that processes peanuts and tree nuts."

"Do you have an alternative for someone with a peanut allergy?" we asked.

"No, you would have to notify the airline in advance about that," she said.

Thanks for being so helpful and accommodating.

By my quick calculation, there were 23 rows of six seats each on our Boeing 737. That's 138 passengers.

The odds are that at least one passenger on the plane, as well as on each the hundreds of other flights the airline flies day after day, has a peanut allergy.

Dealing with that reality, however, would require corporate thinking on the individual customer level, and we all know that corporations pretty much view the customer base as a herd of cattle--or planeload of suitcases with heads.

LABELING GUIDELINES

It was over a year ago that the Food and Drug Administration's new food labeling guidelines went into effect. It's a good idea to let people know in detail what they're eating. In addition to providing key dietary information, manufacturers are required to identify any of the eight primary food allergens--milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, or soybeans--that are contained in a product.

Most of them do this in a variety of vague and unhelpful ways. The wording announces "May contain traces of tree nuts or peanuts," or "Manufactured on equipment that processes peanuts," or even "Made in a plant that also manufactures products with peanuts."

While we appreciate that information, all it does is tell a peanut-allergic child like my daughter that she can't enjoy all the packaged cookies or Easter candy that her friends eat routinely. Go ahead, try to find a chocolate candy or cookie that doesn't have a peanut warning or, better yet, has "peanut-free" on the label.

At age 11, my daughter is and must be her own best protection against an allergic reaction that could range anywhere from an itchy tongue to deadly anaphylactic shock. She either carries her Epipen with her, or knows where one is nearby.

Many of her friends are sympathetic to the situation and help her remain vigilant. On Valentine's Day, a classmate brought her a package of yogurt-covered raisins for her to check. It said: "May contain an occasional peanut or tree nut."

Gee, I wonder what else could have gotten in there. I generally avoid using brand names in derogatory fashion, but Sun-Maid, please go buy a clue and I'll reimburse you. Perhaps the statement also applies to your board of directors: "May contain an occasional nut."

ARE THERE NUTS IN HERE?

Not only did someone write that, but the writer was no doubt instructed to write that. Maybe the conversation went like this:

Supervisor: Does that candy have nuts in it? The feds require us to tell people about that.

Label writer: No, boss, no nuts in that.

Supervisor: I don't know I saw Billy Bob over there flick something into a batch last week. Coulda been a nut--coulda been something else.

Label writer: OK, boss, how about this--"May contain an occasional nut."

Supervisor: Perfect.

I refuse to believe that major food manufacturers with plants across the country are unable to produce foods that do not come into contact with nuts. In fact, I don't think that's the issue at all.

With all the reports of food contamination in recent years and stepped-up government inspection efforts, companies could remove many of their nut warnings. But the brilliant legal department probably warns that just to be safe, the statement on the label ought to cover their short-sighted, lazy corporate butts.

Food Allergy Awareness Week is May 11-17. Awareness is good, but an industry acknowledgment of the need to produce allergen-free foods would be better.

Richard Amrhine is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.
Email: ramrhine@freelancestar.com





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