When you are shopping for someone who has a food allergy, a trip to the grocery store is like a police investigation. Each product must be scrutinized. Labels are examined, each ingredient studied.
Although federal law requires manufacturers to include allergen warnings on prepackaged foods, it is not always clear which products contain allergens and which do not. The regulation does not cover all types of foods, nor instances in which trace amounts of allergens may be present.
• Warnings are limited: Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act in 2004, a rule book for manufacturers. Companies must place special warnings on prepackaged foods if they were made using certain allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, peanuts, wheat, soybeans and tree nuts.
Sesame is the ninth-most-prevalent food allergy among adults in the United States. But the food was left off the list of major food allergens in the labeling law passed by Congress.
Manufacturers do not have to print a “contains sesame” message. It may even be hidden under “natural flavors” or “spices” on the ingredients label.
• Beware of trace amounts: Even if a box of cookies does not include one of the mandated warning labels, the cookies may still contain an allergen.
Let’s say, back at the manufacturer, cookies are put on the same conveyor belt used for almond cookies. Small bits of almond might make it into seemingly almond-free cookies. This is called cross contact. And there is no surefire way you can know it happened — the federal government does not require manufacturers to include labeling for possible cross contact.
As a result, food manufacturers developed their own unregulated labeling practices to alert consumers to potential cross contact. Look for phrases like these: “May contain peanuts and tree nuts.” “Manufactured on the same equipment that processes almonds.” “Made in a bakery that may also use tree nuts.”
These short descriptions, often called “precautionary allergen labeling,” may alert consumers to some risks, but because the labels are unregulated, their meanings differ from company to company.
If you spot precautionary labels beginning with “may contain” or “processed in the same facility as,” don’t buy the products if the labels refer to your allergy.
• Ask the manufacturer: Instead of guessing what a label might mean, some parents take a proactive approach: calling companies to get answers, even if it is time-consuming.
“Maybe once a month I’m calling and trying to track something down,” said Julie V. Lunn, a bookkeeper and entrepreneur in Havre de Grace, Maryland, whose 3-year-old daughter, Alafair, is allergic to a variety of foods.
• Look for allergan-free sources: One way to simplify things is to seek out products made in allergen-free plants. Manufacturers like these cater to the allergy community, using branding to make it clear their foods are free of allergens.
If a label says “made in a dedicated allergen-free facility,” it should be safe.