Where Food Labels Fall Short

WP_20140401_002-001I was just minding my own business Friday, working through my many goals for the day.

A few conference calls and some data-geek excel work in the morning when I look up at the clock and realize I didn’t have much time left before having to get my son from school.

Better get that workout in and take a quick shower.

As I was getting changed, the phone rang. I glance at the caller I.D.

The school.

My heart does a little leap. It’s after lunch.

I don’t like calls from the school around lunch time.

Most of you probably wouldn’t be spooked by this. But if you have a kid with a food allergy, this isn’t what you want to see.

It is Mandy, the school nurse and she immediately says Brett is fine. She thinks. But she explained he had started coughing and wheezing, to the point where it was definitely not normal. His teacher brought him down to see her immediately.

He’s allergic to nuts, could this be a reaction?

Most parents would think, so what? He’s coughing, right? Maybe it’s seasonal allergies, or dust in the air or from the heaters. Wheezing? Ok, he does that every once in a while but not often. We talk about what he had for lunch: basically all foods we eat every day at home, hummus, homemade tortilla, apple, and a few chips. I packed the lunch.

Were the chips a new bag?

Could any of it have been contaminated with nuts?

Not that we know of, but honestly, who knows?

Those Kettle Brand chips. The website says there are no nuts in the facility. But there’s no allergen information on the package.

The Pita Crisps say Contains Wheat. But there isn’t any more information about production on the label. On the website, it says under the FAQ’s there are no nuts in the facility.

hmm? guess I need to call...

hmm? guess I need to call…there are no nuts in the facility, under the FAQ’s.

I have been using King Arthur Flour and contacted them a few years back and they said their facility was free of peanuts. But their package and website? I can’t find any information.

He’s eaten these foods hundreds of times.

I spend sometimes hours of each week reading food nutrition labels to ensure I only purchase safe foods, with no possibility of cross-contamination to nuts.

Sometimes the foods are labelled. Sometimes they aren’t.

When the information is not clearly on the label, I check the company website, or send an email to customer service and hope the person at the receiving end of my inquiry has accurate information about the possibly of cross-contamination of the allergen in question.

And you hope the second after you call the company, they don’t move production facilities.

Or have some guy in the warehouse decide to move the product to a new facility with nuts flying around everywhere.

You have to trust what they tell you is the truth.

so it contains wheat but what else is in the facility? need to call.

so it contains wheat but what else is in the facility? need to call or check website

That day I highly doubted he ate any nuts.

Brett usually sneezes when he smells nuts, he doesn’t cough. Then again, one of the most annoying aspects of a nut allergy is that you can’t predict the same results from one reaction to another–they always change.

But when it’s not in writing, on the back of the box or bag, I start to second guess myself:

When was the last time I checked the

love that there is no sugar, but no allergen or facility info at all. Requires research.

love that there is no sugar, but no allergen or facility info at all. Requires research.

website?

Where is that email I received, I know I sent it awhile back…

What if something changed and I didn’t know about it?

What if I poisoned my son?

But if you are wrong and you do nothing, not administering an epi-pen can be a life-threatening decision.

We ultimately decided I’d bring in his inhaler, ASAP.

I hang up the phone, drop my workout gear, grab his inhaler, and drive straight to the school.

By the time I arrive about 10 minutes later, he was calm.

Oh, hey mom!

In the time it took for me to drive to the school, Mandy said she and Brett talked through what would happen if he wasn’t feeling better in the next minute or two. How she would use the epi-pen, and how he would have to sit calmly for 10 seconds with the needle in his leg.

She said he was calm, and understood what he needed to do.

And it was kind of like an emergency dry run.

So maybe some good came of the situation?

We were pretty sure at that point he was ok, so he left and went back to the class a few minutes later.

While we sat staring at each other for a moment, in relief.

This whole food allergy thing, it’s frustrating.

Sometimes you have to make judgement calls. It’s not a black and white situation.

As I think about Friday’s events in hindsight, I wonder how to minimize confusion for the next time this happens.

And the answer lies right there on the Food Labels.

Wouldn’t it have been great if I could have said to Mandy, there is absolutely ZERO chance there was cross-contamination in the food he was eating? If he indeed was in a room with no nuts and other kids who weren’t eating nuts, we would know this was indeed Asthma and an inhaler would do the trick.

The worry over an epi-pen would never have come to question.

I’m sure some other food allergy parents might say, well, you should just err on the side of caution and administer it anyway. But here’s the thing: if you administer it, you need to get an ambulance and bring him to the hospital to be monitored. If we know food allergy is not in question 100%, that sounds traumatizing to everyone: for Brett, for me, for Mandy, for the other teachers and students. And it’s also not necessary.

So let’s talk about the food label.

perfect! why can't they all be like this?

perfect! why can’t they all be like this?

Did you know it’s not mandatory to put “made in a facility with xxxxx (top allergens)” on the label? It’s voluntary.

And it’s not mandatory to include “made on the same equipment as xxx (allergen)” either . It’s voluntary.

But when foods have been tested for allergens, they found a definite cross contamination risk in foods that do not list the allergen in the ingredients, but are produced alongside or on the same lines as the allergen in question.

Why is this wording not mandatory?

I’m guessing you all heard about Michelle Obama unveiling proposed changes to packaged food labels. It has been in the news everywhere over the last few weeks.

I actually love what she is doing.

I really appreciate that calories are going to be emphasized.

That serving sizes are going to be right-sized.

And that sugar/added sugar is being highlighted, because I do look at that.

I also think adding a line listing the amount of Vitamin D will be helpful because where I live, everyone needs to maximize Vitamin D.

But what disappointed me when I read about the proposed changes?

WP_20140401_001

excellent!

There was no mention of fixing the allergen labeling.

I wonder, after reading last fall about Malia Obama’s peanut allergy, who gets this fun job at the White House of having to read labels, check websites, and determine what is safe for Malia.

Knowing first-hand how tough this is, you just wonder why they didn’t take this opportunity to make changes.

What is their protocol?

Certain brands, usually the more expensive, all natural brands, include these warning labels. And I’m so thankful to them (yes you, Mary’s Gone Crackers, Enjoy Life, Lucy’s, Dr. Kracker). But most of what you see in the grocery store is not clearly labelled. It may tell part of the story, but not typically the full one.  So it involves a call from a parent or the allergic-person to learn the full story of the products production cycle.

And when you have to rely on a person at the end of the customer service phone for life and death information, it’s not very reassuring.

And as I mentioned earlier, what if their current practices change tomorrow?

Why is clear allergen labeling not a priority?

As I was reading about the proposed new nutrition labels, an article in the Atlantic states, according to FDA’s Health and Diet Surveys,

The number of people who “often” read the nutrition label the first time they buy food increased from 44 percent in 2002 to 54 percent in 2008.

And that’s awesome–I’m glad more people are getting smart about reading the nutrition labels, but who knows if those reading it will actually change their behavior because of it. If someone picks up a box of twinkies do you really think they care how much sugar is in it? As much as you hope so, I think these changes will just be preaching to the choir, great for people like me who are used to reading them and who are already health conscious.

And perhaps those who hear about the proposed changes to the label in the media recently will be curious to take a look.

But when chain restaurants started putting calorie counts on their menus, it sounds like not too many people really paid attention to them. If you walk into McDonald’s in the first place, do you care about calorie counts and nutrition? At least for that particular meal, probably not. At other chain restaurants, effectiveness will vary because people have varying degrees of concern over the foods they eat, or how much they will listen to advice.

But here’s the thing. If you are highly-allergic to something,

100% of the people will be reading the label; their life depends on it.

So how about making it mandatory to add clear allergen information on the labels?

So there isn’t so much uncertainty.

This will help ease the anxiety of 100% of food allergic folks, and food allergy parents.

And school nurses and teachers and caregivers and friends and relatives.

When a person with a food allergy coughs, we don’t have to worry about traumatizing kids and parents and teachers with unnecessary talk of needles and ambulances. or life or death decisions.

Because we know for a fact, by looking at the label, there is no worry of cross-contamination.

We will know, a cough is just a cough.

A few puffs of an inhaler will do the trick.

Let’s have a Nutrition label that keeps all of us safe.

From added sugar.

From too many calories.

From unrealistic portion sizes.

It’s all important.

But how about keeping us safe from allergens too.

By enforcing companies to put it all in writing on the label.

What do you think of the Food Nutrition Label. Does it suit your needs? Is there anything you feel is missing? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

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19 thoughts on “Where Food Labels Fall Short

  1. Excellent article. I’ve always thought that also having some standardize allergen warning would be great. I am also upset when a company changes a recipe to ADD a widely known allergen. It would be nice if they made some kind of notice on the package that it was changed. Having read ingredient listings and finding one that you can use, only to buy it months later and use it, to then re-read the ingredients to find out it contained the allergen you were trying to avoid, is terrible. Thankfully for my son it wasn’t a huge deal, but for some it could be life or death. I guess the reality is for extreme allergies you have to read EVERY label, and pray for the best. Good luck in all your efforts!

    • Fred, thanks so much for leaving that comment. That’s a great point. In a lot of the food allergy groups I follow there is lots of talk about some brands, like cheerios for instance, where they are safe and suddenly they come out with a peanut butter flavor. One of Brett’s first reactions was to Puffin’s cereal–where a friend asked if he could have it, and being new at the allergy-mom thing, I said oh yeah, those are fine, without double-checking the box). He had them before so I didn’t check and they were a peanut version I didn’t know about. Good luck to you too and I’m really glad you read and left your thoughts!

  2. Hi Robin,

    Thanks for such an insightful article regarding a problem that daily faces all of us who provide nutrition for our loved ones – in my case a little 3-1/2 year-old grandson who has been to the ER twice with anaphylactic shock from peanut exposure. I gave him the Epipen injection during the second episode. We knew the source of peanuts with his first shock but not the second. The labels are so un-reassuring, as you said. I, too, wish we could just read and make a 100%- certain decision as to whether nor not purchased food or ingredients are safe. Maybe that day will come. As it is,I, along with everyone else involved with feeding our allergic loved ones, spend a lot of time calling and calling again to processing plants, quizzing the customer service person, who sometimes sounds very reliable with his/her information, but at other times, not so much. It might take legislation promoted by a legislator who has a personal reason to push for accurate labeling, in order to finally get this labeling problem solved in the U.S.- i.e., someone who him/herself has a child with PA. And as you said, Michelle Obama, as much as I admire her, seems to have dropped the ball recently on this labeling issue. She should have made allergen labeling her top priority in her recent efforts to promote better labeling of foods. I am wondering whether or not her daughter actually has PA, or perhaps “only” some less life-threatening sensitivity to nuts (I had, as a child, a sensitivity to raw pecans, only, in that I would immediately get an extremely sore bump or two on my tongue each time I ate them, although not with cooked pecans, so I am thinking of something along this line that perhaps Malia Obama has regarding peanuts?). I don’t mean this as a put-down as to the seriousness of any type of allergic reaction to any food, but very little has been made of the Obama daughter’s peanut allergic condition, and I would really think that as savvy as her Mom is, she would have addressed this labeling problem head-on, if Malia actually does have PA of the nature of which we are speaking – life-threatening at the slightest amount of ingestion of the peanut protein. Well, I don’t intend to start a rumor that Malia does not truly have PA, because she likely does; however, it does beg the question, “Why didn’t her Mom push for clear allergen labeling at the time she stressed more revealing calorie content, etc. on labels?” I feel that if her daughter had required an epinephrine injection from an episode of anaphylactic shock, and that if Mrs. Obama had been the one who had to make the Epipen decision and had been the one to give the injection, (followed by a quick rush to the ER, and a stay there of 4-6 hours, waiting for the common second shock to occur) – well, I think she would have made “accurate and complete labeling of allergens” her first priority in labeling changes. Maybe next go-around this will happen and we can rest somewhat easier EACH TIME we purchase even the smallest ingestible item for our allergic children. I hope that time comes very soon without a tragedy having to occur in the life of a legislator in order to bring proper labeling legislation about for the many allergic individuals and their caretakers.

    Take care, and hope your job is going well!

    • Ramona, thanks so much for your great insight, as usual, love to write things I know will get your going :). I know, the whole thing about the Obama’s perplexes me. I thought about that too, whether Malia’s was all that severe. But then again, they brought it up w/the passing of the epinephrine in schools bill. And the nature of nut allergies is that if you have one, any allergy is severe because you never know how it’ll behave next time, as they do get more severe over time. Yeah, maybe next time!!

  3. Lunch time calls from the nurse = cardiac arrest for the mom of a kid with food allergies. Totally totally know this feeling. I didn’t know one of the Obama’s girls had peanut allergy. Seems that Michelle would totally get this on the agenda of her labelling campaign.

    • Jen, thanks for your comment. I know, I can understand the Obamas not wanting it out there for crazies to know, for protection reasons. But once they came out with that info during the epinephrine signing, it’s just a let-down they haven’t done more. Maybe Malia’s isn’t all that severe (although I’m told all peanut allergies are or could be). Is Israel any better with labeling? I’m scared to death to travel with Brett and my mother just actually mentioned how great it would be to go to Israel as a family. My heart did a little leap because w/a language barrier and not knowing about labeling, I’m worried!

      • Israel is so far behind in labelling. So so far behind. It’s a travesty. Last week a tourist died of a sesame allergy. That didn’t have to do with labeling, as I understand it. It’s confusing to me since she ate techina, which is basically sesame puree. Maybe she didn’t think her allergy was so severe? Maybe she was being adventurous? I don’t want to judge without knowing the facts. Come to Israel anyway. There are friendly people like me who can give you tips.

        • I did hear about the sesame incident in the news–it’s so awful. that’s a shame about Israel being even worse than here–sounds like you have your work cut out for you re: reading labels. But thank you–I will let you know if a visit is in the future. So great to know you are there and have been navigating the food scene for a long time in your household.

  4. What a great article! My son, too, has a nut and peanut allergy although honestly, (knock on wood) we don’t really know how bad it is. The first time he ate a cashew, he turned red immediately. We then did the testing and he popped up for peanuts as well, but no other nuts. However, the doctor said that each time they’re exposed to them, that the histamine levels get higher and then register a positive. So far, he hasn’t had another incident.
    And the labeling thing – it’s surprising to me that the Obamas are not doing more to require allergen information. While I do like to know about sugar levels, calories, and portions, I feel like the allergen information is more important – like you said, you should know if something changed.

    • Hi there! Thanks so much for reading my blog and for your comment. Love connecting with others in the same situation. And I’m glad to hear you haven’t seen a reaction first-hand. My son’s was pretty light at first, and I cringe at the few times he turned red and we were nervous, suspecting an allergy, but not confirmed. We had a few experiences where we were unprepared, and he was fine in a few minutes. But I don’t think we’d have that luxury again. He had one incident at 3 1/2 where we had to administer the epi-pen (mother in law fed him a granola bar) and thankfully we haven’t had reactions since. But, what is telling, is that he’s really sensitive to the smell and if it’s in the air….I can definitely tell the allergy has changed, and not for the better!

  5. Man, I can barely imagine the fear of navigating something like this. Luckily my son has no allergies (it’s especially lucky as I’m paranoid enough about his safety in general), but I really stress about me travelling and I only get sick to my stomach, I don’t have any risk to my life. As it is, I find it hard to ensure I don’t get any of the things that make me sick, though I find if you go the self-catering route it’s more reassuring because you can control what you/your family eats and you can easily pack a lunch for a day out. So, I say travel because it’s such a great thing to do, but plan ahead, fly with your own food, try for self catering, and write to the place you’ll be staying in advance, letting them know how serious the allergy is.

    • You are so right, you definitely have to take travel to a whole new planning level–something I was never very good at to begin with! It’s sad that my hope is someday these smart doctors working on the food allergy problem will find a way to at least just make him temporarily ill, as opposed to have it life-threatening.I think that would help alleviate his and our anxiety every day about something so silly, food, nourishment….

    • it is! definitely one of those things that only people who have someone close to them know, so I try not to talk food allergy too much, but do like to get a few words out there about understanding because the number of people who this affects keeps growing….

    • Thank you for your comment Dannielle. There is definitely a learning curve–nobody told me this needed to be done when he was first diagnosed but thank goodness for the web and support groups–I learned the label laws, and how they were lacking, through other moms. And then learned about how bad the odds were w/cross-contamination–it’s not something to be lax about, for sure!

  6. I’m allergic to corn, which is not required to be labeled at all and I react to the derivatives and cross contamination. Basically, all processed food is gone for me. I don’t really have to worry about labels anymore because I can’t buy any prepared food anymore, although sometimes I play the “let’s see how many multi-syllabic words are on this label that are actually corn” game.

    • Wow, it’s crazy! And corn is definitely in everything. I do find it interesting those of us in the allergy community have learned to be far more healthful than average because of all this label reading! thanks so much for your comment and look forward to following your blog!

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