Reading Labels and Ensuring Safe Foods: What You Absolutely Need to Know
Updated: Jun 30, 2018
Reading labels EVERY time is a must...and it's important to know that it's not always enough.
Perhaps the MOST important habit to adopt is to read ingredient labels on foods. And it's important to do it EVERY time, as the same brand and same product can sometimes be manufactured in different facilities or their manufacturing process can change.
I'll start with the good news:
The FDA requires food manufacturers to list out the top 8 allergens in plain language (more info here and here)
It must be listed as such even if they are present in small amounts, such as in the food colorants
That's about it for the good news. The bad news:
Manufacturers are not required to label for other allergens. This means that other common allergens like corn and sesame that didn't make the cut-off for the top 8 are not labeled the same way, and it's important to contact the company directly to find out if those are present in any of the ingredients.
Manufacturers are NOT required to label for cross-contamination risk. What is cross-contamination? It is the risk that a trace amount of an allergen might have unintentionally made its way into the food. This can and does happen if the prior product that was run on the same manufacturing line had an allergen in it and a slight amount wasn't fully cleaned off, and it got into the food that was manufactured next.
That means that any cross-contamination statements, if provided at all, are completely voluntary and may or may not provide you the full information you need. So even if it says "produced in a facility that uses wheat, peanuts, and tree nuts," it doesn't necessarily mean the facility also doesn't use eggs or soy for example.
Cross-contamination statements are also worded however the manufacturer chooses. So there isn't necessarily more or less risk when it says "may contain" versus another method of articulating the risk, like "produced in a facility".
The ONLY way to assess the level of risk is to call or contact the company directly. It's also important to know what to ask and to be able to decipher what the company's response is; while some will be transparent in their disclosure when you call, others have canned responses that avoid sharing that information. In those cases, while it is up to your discretion, we tend to just avoid the food if we can't be sure.
So how do you know what to ask and how to discern what they are saying? Here are some tips:
Have the product name and UPC code if possible. This will help them identify the exact food you are referring to.
Ask specifically if the food was "manufactured on shared lines" with the allergens you are concerned with. Another way to say this is if it shared a manufacturing line with any food that contained the allergen (i.e. "I'm calling to find out if xxxx food was manufactured on a shared line with any other product containing milk."
If you or your child are especially sensitive to even airborne amounts, you will want to ask if it was "manufactured in a shared facility" with the allergen. Over time, you will grow to understand your own comfort level, i.e. if you are comfortable with shared facility but not shared lines, or not even with shared facilities. Another way to ask this is whether it is a "dedicated nut-free facility" or dairy-free facility, etc.
"We employ strict cleaning methods" is usually code for the fact that the product DOES share lines. What a lot of companies will tell you is that disclosing cross-contamination risk does a disservice to consumers, because it provides less incentive for companies to clean well. The unfortunate truth is that it can be costly to manufacture on dedicated equipment, which is usually the reason why they prefer not to disclose this information. To them, the risk of a consumer having an allergic reaction is small compared to the dent in sales they feel they may get if they disclose cross-contamination risk. That being said, there are some companies that do have very good cleaning methods, and over time, you will grow to find what brands you feel that you can trust. But my advice would be to be wary and very careful. If you or your loved one has a severe allergy, I would avoid the food unless you get a straight answer.
"We test for trace amounts" is also code for the fact that the product shares lines. The amazing but also frightening thing about the human body is that for those with severe allergies, the body can respond to the tiniest trace that the best machine would never be able to detect. While testing for trace amounts is helpful for those with food sensitivities and intolerances, it is not adequate for those with a severe allergy.
It's important to call every so often, as manufacturing practices can change. Again, this will depend on your comfort level. Some people will call every six months, while others may wait up to a year or two.
A few final tips:
Check labels every time. Sometimes, brands will manufacture the same food in multiple locations or different facilities. The packaging should always have the most reliable information (at least, in terms of what they are willing to provide).
Snack Safely is also a great resource, as they have provided some vetted packaged foods on their list. I would recommend you also keep your own running list of safe foods.
I know that this can sound daunting. But you will grow accustomed to it. I can't underscore how important this is. We had to learn the hard way, before we knew what cross-contamination risk was and my son had an anaphylactic reaction to a trace amount of dairy due to share lines. There have also been countless stories of accidental ingestion due to not reading labels or assumptions, as well as people suddenly reacting to a food they previously were able to eat (that's the nature of cross-contamination...it doesn't affect every product, but has the risk of making its way into just one). Over time, this will just become a part of life, and you will grow to find the list of brands you trust.
Note: The above is not a substitute for professional medical advice and is meant to be just one perspective. Always consult and seek the advice of your doctor.