I am writing this post for everyone, allergic individuals, their family members, friends, strangers. All the American people. Why? Because when Zachary was first diagnosed with allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs, I knew zero about food labeling. I trusted what I read, and because I trusted what I read, we had multiple mystery reactions. The further I dug, the more I learned. The more I learned, the more I felt a need to share the dark secrets of food labeling with all of you.
As you may know, there is a labeling law in place, but it is not, by any stretch of the imagination, extensive. The law is long enough and complex enough, with just enough loopholes in it, that it requires a primer for all of us.
Here’s the breakdown that I wish had been written out clearly for me when we entered this world eight years ago.
The Food Allergen Labeling And Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) is relatively new compared to how long the food industry itself has been around. In some sense, I feel like the food industry is still working out what it looks like for companies to adopt best practices for their consumers. In the meantime, this is what FALCPA covers right now.
It only covers the “Top Eight” in packaged foods. This act requires packaged foods to have noted the allergen *somewhere* on the label. If one of the “Top Eight” (identified by the FDA as: milk, eggs, fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod), Crustacean shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp), tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans, coconut), peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.
Those allergen statements are voluntary. If your typical mode of operation is to skip reading the full label and jump past all of the ingredients to look for an allergen statement, you may want to rethink how you approach label reading because those allergen statements are not required.
May contain/Made in a facility/Made on same equipment warnings are not governed, so manufacturers can use whichever wording suits the design of their labels best. In effect, these warnings – if included at all – may be used interchangeably.
The allergen could be in the labeled food. According to a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, if there’s a warning on the label, there’s about a 10% chance the allergen will be present in the food. Interestingly, those foods tested that had the “shared facility” warning had more peanut protein present than the foods that carried a “may contain” warning. This is important to note, as many of us assume a “shared facility” warning does not have as great an implication as one that says “may contain.”
There are foods exempted from the labeling requirements. “Under FALCPA, raw agricultural commodities (generally fresh fruits and vegetables) are exempt from the labeling requirements, but so are highly refined oils derived from one of the eight major food allergens and any ingredient derived from such highly refined oil.” As an example: if you want to purchase food that has been made with highly refined peanut oil, FALCPA does not require it to be listed on the label because it is not considered an allergen.
Alcohol, personal products, and household products are not covered by FALCPA, therefore even the Top 8 are not required to be labeled on these products. Planning to cook with wine and your loved one has an egg allergy? You may have to do some research on wines, because apparently egg can be present in some wines. Need some nut-free spirits? At this point, you’ll have to look at comprehensive guides like this one to guide you.
The good news in all of this is that some brands are starting to take notice. We’re beginning to see more statements on packages outlining not just what allergens are in the product, but what the facilities are free from. Some favorites of ours are those like Smarty Pants Vitamins, which state exactly what allergens their product is free from. It would be great if more brands did just this.
Until they do, I’m off to call Whole Foods to find out what “Produced in a facility with eggs” really means to them.