Understanding food labels
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires food manufacturers to list any of the eight most common foods that trigger allergic responses. It must be written in simple terms that adults and older children will understand.
What must be listed?
The eight foods are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat. These foods are responsible for 90 percent of allergy outbreaks.
Understanding the food labels
Not all foods must be labeled. Fresh vegetables, meats and some highly refined oils do not need to be labeled. Any packaged food manufactured domestically or imported is required to have a label. The label is required whether or not one of the eight trigger foods is included in the package.
The label must list the specific type of allergen (walnut as a type of tree nut, for instance) as well as any ingredient that contains a protein originating from one of the eight major food triggers (whey which comes from milk, for instance). The labels must also list any flavoring, coloring or additive that contains a protein from the eight offenders.
Cross-contamination is a serious problem for people with very sensitive food allergies. While food labeling laws require allergens to be identified even in small amounts, this law only applies when the allergen is an intended ingredient. Manufacturers are not required to include warnings about the possibility of food allergens accidentally entering the food.
Nevertheless, many manufacturers acknowledge the importance of such warnings and voluntarily put them on their foods. Since these warnings are not regulated, there are many phrases that are used and they are not always clear. Packages which state “May contain soy” or “Manufactured in a factory that also processes peanuts” should always be taken seriously and avoided by people with highly sensitive allergies.
Take labeling into your own hands
Don’t hesitate to call the food manufacturer for clarification. Since cross-contamination warnings are voluntary and not regulated, it is possible to campaign for a meaningful warning on the packaging. Sometimes it only takes a phone call and a polite conversation with a service-minded individual.