Every year, 30,000 people are rushed to the emergency room because of an allergic reaction to food. Some 150 die, a high percentage are kids. In many cases, despite special care taken not to consume any product suspected to contain an allergen, horrified parents discover their child gasping for air and breaking out in hives, all because gluten, milk, or egg content were not properly disclosed on the food package label.
The Chicago Tribune provides a glimpse into the travails of one mother in her quest to protect her son. Through her story, we discover how helpless the 4 million Americans with allergies are each time they put a bite into their mouth. Highlights:
American children with food allergies are suffering life-threatening–and completely avoidable–reactions because manufacturers mislabel their products and regulators fail to police store shelves, a Tribune investigation has found.
In effect, children are used as guinea pigs, with the government and industry often taking steps to properly label a product only after a child has been harmed.
The Tribune investigation revealed that the government rarely inspects food to find problems and doesn’t punish companies that repeatedly violate labeling laws.
What you need to know:
In 2004, Congress enacted a law intended to help improve allergen labeling: the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA). The FALCPA imposed additional labeling declaration requirements on packaged food products that contain “major food allergens”: peanuts, tree nuts, soy, milk, eggs, wheat, seafood, and shellfish.
The law did not, however, impose labeling requirements when food products may inadvertently contain major allergens. Why would a product contain an allergen accidentally? Turns out that even tiny amounts of an allergen present in a food are enough to cause a severe reaction and even death. Sometimes allergen free products are packaged in a plant that also manufactures products with allergens. In several cases products get cross-contaminated. That’s why you MAY see a labels stating “Manufactured in a facility that also uses peanuts.”Or may not.
This is because there’s is no clear definition of how to label products with a very rare chance to cause a very severe reaction. In September, the FDA held preliminary hearings aimed at improving allergy labeling. But don’t hold your breath; it will take a long while to make changes.
What to do at the supermarket:
If you are allergic, or a parent to an allergic child, always read the food labels and check for allergen warnings. This is not a bulletproof solution.You can do some prep work at home as well.
The Tribune put together a database with several thousand products that have been recalled over the past 10 years. You can use it to see the history of a specific product and help you make better decisions in advance of purchase.