Recently, the grocery chain Winn-Dixie issued a recall of its store-brand canned Italian green beans after a man discovered a whole, in-shell peanut in a Winn-Dixie green bean can. According to a Winn-Dixie spokesperson, the manufacturer that processes green beans for Winn-Dixie also packages boiled peanuts on the same equipment. It’s easy to imagine how such a mistake could happen in a large food packaging factory. A minor technical mix-up — a failure to fully wash equipment between runs, an accidental container switch — could easily have led to the foods being mixed together. In a factory where peanuts and green beans are canned on the same equipment, it would not take a major act of negligence for the two to wind up in the same can.
But for many of the more than 12 million Americans with food allergies, such a simple mistake could prove deadly.
Peanuts in particular are one of the most dangerous food allergens. In some peanut allergic individuals, even trace amounts of peanuts can cause a severe type of allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, which can cause vomiting, difficulty breathing, loss of consciousness and an irregular heartbeat. If not treated immediately with an injection of epinephrine, anaphylaxis can be fatal. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, anaphylaxis due to food allergies causes 150-200 deaths in the U.S. each year, and more than half of those deaths are caused by an allergic reaction to peanuts.
And, in an age when most of the food consumers eat is factory-produced on a large industrial scale, packaging mistakes involving common food allergens are unfortunately commonplace. Major, well-known food manufacturers frequently accidentally mix the wrong ingredient into a batch, mislabel one product as another, allow products to become cross-contaminated by failing to clean their production lines, or simply fail to provide a full ingredient list.
Winn-Dixie wasn’t the only big brand to issue a food-allergen-related recall in December 2011. That same month, See’s Candies recalled 3,600 boxes of its Almond Clusters candy after discovering some had been contaminated with peanuts. Eillien’s Candies recalled a batch of yogurt-covered raisins because yogurt-covered peanuts had been mixed in.
In October 2011, General Mills warned that some of its Fiber One Bars may contain a potentially unpleasant peanut butter surprise — the company had mislabeled an entire batch of Chocolate Peanut Butter flavored bars as plain Chocolate. That same month, the grocery chain Kroger recalled its store brand of Moose Tracks ice cream after failing to list peanuts as an ingredient on the package.
Don’t think choosing organic brands will keep you safe from unexpected allergen contamination. Just this past April, Organic Food Bar, a maker of organic snack bars that advertises that its products are made in a peanut-free facility, recalled several lots of its Chocolatey Chocolate Chip RAW Organic Food Bar upon discovering that one of the bar’s raw ingredients had been contaminated with peanuts at their supplier’s facility, before it entered their factory.
And people with a peanut allergy are not the only ones who ought to pay close attention to allergen-based food recalls: in November, Rice-a-Roni issued a recall due to undeclared dairy ingredients; in December, Rising Moon Organics recalled packages of ravioli for undeclared soy.
In fact, the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network’s Allergy Alert Archives show that major brand food recalls over undeclared allergens are pretty much a weekly occurrence. For people with food allergies (and the parents of children with food allergies), that’s a pretty scary frequency of mistakes, and a lot of information to try to keep track of.
Though the FDA does now require commercial producers of packaged foods to clearly label foods that are known to contain the top 8 major food allergens — milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy — the federal government does not require food companies to warn customers that a food may contain allergens through cross-contamination — even if the risk of cross-contamination is high.
Those companies that do offer ingredient label warnings such as MAY CONTAIN PEANUTS or MADE ON SHARED EQUIPMENT WITH SOY are doing so entirely voluntarily. There is no law in the U.S. requiring that they do so, and there are no firm legal guidelines for companies to follow when it comes to assessing their own cross-contamination risk.
And some companies label their food with very vague blanket statements that really do no good to help food allergic consumers. For example, “All of our foods may come into contact with common food allergens” is not very helpful advice for someone who is very specifically trying to determine whether a food may contain soy.
With very little testing or tracking of commonly allergenic ingredients through different facilities required under FDA guidelines, it can be very difficult even for a company that wants to produce processed foods that are free of a particular allergen to guarantee that their products are allergen-free. As in the case of Organic Food Bar, all a company’s work to keep its own facilities allergen-free can be undone by a single unscrupulous supplier.
Right now, for Americans with serious food allergies, reading food labels to check the ingredients list for allergens is simply not enough to stay safe. If a food producing company does not voluntarily provide detailed, accurate allergen information, including cross-contamination information, either on the food packaging itself or on the company website, the only reliable way to assess the safety of mass-produced, packaged foods is to contact the food manufacturer and ask detailed questions about how their facilities handle food allergens.
This can mean doing literally hours of research on a regular basis just to determine a list of “safe” foods a food allergic person can eat — and of course, since manufacturers change recipes and practices on a regular basis, all that information is always subject to change.
I know just how burdensome keeping track of food allergen information can be, because I’ve spent countless hours doing it myself. My own seven-year-old son is allergic to peanuts, and has previously had an anaphylactic reaction. If my child ate just a single whole peanut, without immediate medical intervention, he could die. I live daily with the knowledge that, even if I carefully check the ingredients on every single packaged item my child eats, one wrongly packaged granola bar or can of green beans could easily put my child in the hospital. In the face of constant recalls from “trusted” big-brand food manufacturers, our family has found it necessary to adopt a cynical attitude: trust no one.
Honest accidents do happen in every industry, and it would be impossible for food producing businesses to prevent accidents like the Winn-Dixie incident from happening 100% of the time. But better food labeling laws that would require companies to clearly, honestly state the risk of cross-contamination, better regulations on the storage and transport of common allergens, and more voluntary vigilance on the part of companies that work with allergenic foods could go a long way toward making everyday eating safer — and easier — for people with food allergies.
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