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January 17, 2008

Frustration with Food Labels

Grocery shopping for children with food allergies can at times be quite taxing. Remember a couple of years ago when the law changed and companies had to list the top 8 allergens on their packages? And remember how it seemed that “may contain traces of …” labels were popping up everywhere you looked? It added a huge stress to an already dreaded chore.

According to FAAN, the food labeling law effective January 2006 mandates that foods containing the top eight allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soy) must declare the food in plain language on the package. This was put into place to help food allergic consumers. Besides listing the top allergens, some companies also voluntarily include allergy advisory labeling, such as the statements “may contain traces of…” or “processed in the same plant as…”.

“Since these statements are voluntary, every company has its own guidelines for when to use them and what words to use. As a result, consumers do not know which statements are accurate or how to interpret their meaning.”

To me, it seemed that companies were just covering themselves to avoid potential law suits. I started wondering if I should believe that this product I’ve used for years was really off limits. Or was it only the label that changed and not really the food itself? I wanted to just ignore those labels, but the neurotic side of me asked how could I take a chance with my child’s life?

FAAN recently published an article in their newsletter (Food Allergy News, Vol. 16, No 6) that made me rethink how I looked at those labels:

To see whether or not consumers paid attention to the advisory statements, FAAN developed a structured questionnaire and gave them to persons attending the 2003 and 2006 FAAN Food Allergy Conferences. The majority of the respondents were parents of a child with food allergy. The findings were concerning. In 2003, 85 percent responded that they would “never” purchase a product with an advisory label. This decreased to 75 percent in 2006.

“To determine the risk of eating foods with advisory labeling, scientists at the University of Nebraska analyzed 200 types of packaged foods for the presence of peanut. Samples included 179 products with advisory statements for peanuts and 21 products with peanuts listed as the last ingredient or near the end of the ingredient statement. The analysis showed that, of the products that included peanut as the last or close-to-last ingredient, only one-third contained detectable levels of peanut. Some food categories (bakery products/mixes, snack foods, frozen desserts, instant/quick meals) did not have detectable levels of peanut.”

The results of this study show that an increasing number of people are ignoring allergy advisory statements. According again to the FAAN article, “This may be due to a number of reasons, including the increased number of products bearing allergen statements that had safely been eaten before a new warning was added, or the belief that advisory labels are for a company’s legal protection rather than because of a real risk that allergens are present. Since there is no way for individuals to know if a product with advisory labeling does or doesn’t contain the allergen, the authors recommended that products with these labeling messages, and those that list peanuts at the end of the ingredient statement, should be avoided.”

Now even though my child’s food selection is still limited, I don’t feel as frustrated knowing that these statements might really mean what they say!!

Posted by Ann Marie at January 17, 2008 1:27 PM


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