More food labels take an ominous tone on allergens

NEW YORK For the 12 million U.S. consumers with food allergies, food shopping can be fraught with peril.

Many products that don’t contain the eight food items responsible for 90 percent of consumer food allergies—milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans—still may be produced in facilities or on equipment that processes these known allergens. Regardless, many of these products carry warnings if companies aren’t certain if allergens got into them accidentally. Quaker’s Chewy chocolate chip granola bars, for example, contain wheat, soy and milk, but the label also warns the products “may contain traces of peanuts.”

Due to a 2004 labeling law that took effect Jan. 1, 2006, requiring foodmakers to list the eight food allergens more precisely, these labels have spread to more packages. But Ann Munoz-/Furlong, founder of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, said some foodmakers may be overusing the advisory statements instead of focusing on refining the manufacturing process to prevent cross-contamination. Foodmakers disagree. “We label to maximum consumer protection,” said Thomas Forsythe, senior vice president of gourmet gift-maker Harry & David Operations of Medford, Ore.

Quality control does have its limits. Harry & David makes 571 different products in one manufacturing facility—some containing allergens, some not—and its equipment is sanitized to minimize contamination risks. Regardless, the company had four allergen recalls this year—yet no illnesses were reported in the recalls. Three resulted from the incorrect labels being applied and three recalls covered products other companies made for Harry & David. Steps were taken to rectify the problems.

Many companies, anticipating problems, add broad warning statements. Earth’s Best, a brand of organic baby foods, for instance, added a statement on products containing oats that warns wheat or traces of it may be present because of the high probability that wheat will get inadvertently mixed with oats during harvesting and processing.

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