The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2006, requires foodmakers to identify, in plain language, the presence of any of the eight major food allergens. For example, a product that contains casein must specify that it contains a milk derivative.
Most firms go much farther than that. You'll commonly see statements about possible cross-contamination at the bottom at a food label. Take Newman's Own Organics' Fig Newmans, one of Paul Newman's product line. There's wheat and milk in the ingredients and those are noted. But underneath the label is a statement that the cookies are made on "equipment that may process products containing peanuts, other nuts and milk powder."
Great, right? Even the possibility of the presence of an allergen is covered. What more could anybody want?
Well, nothing satisfies everyone. And complaints are being raised even about this vast improvement over the old labeling, says an article by Julie Schmit in USA Today.
One complainer is someone I frequently quote, Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). She's worried that manufacturers try to game the system by putting overly-broad disclaimers on the packages so that they don't have to closely monitor their manufacturing processes.
Munoz-Furlong gives one example:
Some Harry & David products include an advisory that is so broad FANN's Munoz-Furlong calls it "ridiculous." The statement: "May contain peanuts and/or trace amounts of allergens not listed in the ingredients."
Harry & David do gourmet food packages, making 571 different products in one facility. They counter by saying:
The company has "robust quality systems" checked by two sets of outside inspectors, [senior vice president Thomas] Forsythe says. Equipment and production lines are sanitized to minimize contamination risks.
Still, Harry & David had four allergen recalls in the past year. Three resulted from the wrong labels being applied. One cause was never identified. Three recalls covered products other companies made for Harry & David. Two of those companies are no longer used, Forsythe says. The other stepped up its label-control procedures, as did Harry & David. No illnesses were reported in any of the recalls.
I agree that saying merely "other allergens" is not living up to the spirit of the regulations. The impression I get is that Munoz-Furlong wants Harry & David to identify each possible cross-contamination for each food. From the limited information given in the article, it's not clear to me how the firm could effectively do that. Some compromise might be needed here.
As a general rule, however, I'm not seeing massive wrongdoing. Given that somebody always has to be the worst case in any line of work, I don't doubt that somewhere out there some firm is not keeping the highest quality standards.
The reality is, though, that the worst firm would be the worst firm regardless. And a broad label does keep the most sensitive away. It may keep too many away, to be sure, but I don't see that that's a bad thing. Before labels were required the worst firms were doing all the worst things and not warning people at all. The current system has to be an improvement over that.
The other worry in the article is that the new warnings are confusing for consumers or that they collectively drive up fears about the safety of the food supply.
Again, I'm dubious. People who have experience in checking labels should find the information given to be clear and direct and vastly better than the way things used to be. Those first encountering the world of specialty diets may be overwhelmed at the beginning but I guarantee you that this was equally true when I learned I was LI back in 1978 and I would have shouted for joy to be given labels with the current information on it.
Fearmongers might be using allergy warnings to scare consumers. I read far more articles from people who appear to think that the need to have these warnings at all is ludicrous. They're wrong. More info about our food is a good thing, and the extra line at the bottom of some ingredients lists is about as scary as the Munsters.
Munoz-Furlong has done fine work in the past. She many be seeing examples that I haven't and that USA Today didn't bother to mention. Reality is a constant compromise. We're currently at a pretty good balance, superior to where we were pre-2006. Tweak the system if necessary but keep it going. It's good for all of us.