ST. LOUIS (KMOX) – For children with severe food allergies, doctors often recommend strict avoidance. No contact with their food triggers at all.
But it’s not necessarily that easy.
What consumers see on food labels and allergy statements is not always what they get.
When Kerry Schindler’s son was diagnosed with food allergies, she quickly learned how many products include milk, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. “I spent hours probably in the store trying to find a brand of cracker or a loaf of bread that would meet his dietary needs and ours as well,” she says.
Just because Schindler finds something on one shopping trip, doesn’t mean it will be a sure bet the next time.
“Every single time I have to read the label and then sure enough people change their ingredient list and then I have to start that process all over again,” she says.
Labeling for food allergens is governed by federal law, but only covers the eight most common allergies: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shell fish.
Products regulated by the FDA are supposed to list the common name of an ingredient. For example, if something has “whey,” the manufacturer should put the common name “milk” either in the ingredient list or just below it.
Beyond that, it gets murky.
Jennifer Jobrack is Senior National Director of Advocacy for Food Allergy Research and Education. She says there’s no guarantee you’ll get any warning at all.
“I can’t tell you how many times I ask a vendor, ‘Is your product peanut-free?’ [They say] ‘Yes it is,’ and then you turn it around and you realize there may be language on there [that says] ‘Made in the same facility as peanuts.'”
Jobrack says the real danger is when consumers are left to interpret what ingredient lists mean.
“All of those are arbitrary, voluntary, at the discretion of the manufacturer whether to include them and if so what to say in them,” she says.
While some consumers might think an advisory is simply a way for companies to cover themselves legally, one industry representative says they are supposed to be there for good reason.
Dr. Leon Bruner is Executive Vice President for Science and Regulatory Affairs and Chief Science Officer at the Grocery Manufacturers Association. He says despite the best controls in a manufacturing plant, allergens cannot be avoided.
Jobrack says consumers have a right to be concerned. A recent study on dark chocolate bars by the FDA reports “only six [bars] listed milk as an ingredient. 51 of them actually contained trace amounts of milk.”
Undeclared food allergens tops the list of FDA recalls, but by a long shot. “In 2015, there were 58 recalls for undeclared allergens representing more than 10 million pounds of food” Jobrack says.
Compared to just 3 recalls for salmonella and half a dozen recalls for listeria, food allergens are a far greater issue that can kill within minutes.
Jobrack is waiting to see whether recent changes in federal food safety guidelines will make a difference. Manufacturers are now required to document and demonstrate how they avoid cross contact in their plants.
“If there is a risk that an allergen could end up in a product and create a hazard the manufacturer is now obligated to put controls in place to make sure that those allergens don’t get in the food,” Bruner says.
Food labeling isn’t the only area where advocates are pushing for change.”Normal ambulances don’t carry EpiPens, you have to have the cardiac unit.” More on that as we conclude our series on food allergies, The Deadly Dish.
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