Originally published in the May 28, 2014, issue
By Dallas Duncan
Approximately 30,000 Americans visit the emergency room, and more than 150 die, each year due to allergic reactions to food, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.
And there’s no cure, according to the US Food and Drug Administration website. The best thing consumers can do is avoid products that contain the food allergens they have reactions to.
That’s where product labeling comes in, said Patricia Batten, manufactured food program associate for the Department’s Food Safety Division.
“You’ve got to list your ingredients and if any ingredient is made up of sub-ingredients, you have to list it,” Batten said. “I always tell folks, lay your ingredients on the table. … If the allergens are spelled out in the ingredient statement, you do not have to put an allergen statement.”
Take butter, for example. Butter contains milk, so in the ingredient statement, a manufacturer could say, “butter [cream, milk, natural flavoring]” and eliminate the need to have a separate statement on the label saying the product contains milk, she said.
Dairy is one of several food allergens, said Jessica Badour, recall outreach specialist for the Food Safety Division. The others are eggs, shellfish, fish, wheat, peanuts, soybeans, sulfites and tree nuts, including chestnuts, brazil nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews and pine nuts. Some food dyes can also cause allergic reactions.
Consumers can also be intolerant to foods instead of allergic. Food intolerance refers to an abnormal response to a food or additive, such as digestive problems after eating dairy, according to the FDA. A food allergy, on the other hand, occurs when the body produces a specific immunoglobulin – a protein the immune system uses to identify foreign objects, such as viruses – to a food. Once the food is eaten and binds with this protein, it starts an allergic reaction.
If a company does not declare an allergen, the best thing it can do is recall the product, Batten said.
“That’s very costly. Years back, Frito-Lay had made some Grandma’s Cookies Chocolate Chip. They forgot to put eggs in the label. They recalled 1.2 million cookies and they just threw them in the landfill,” she said.
Badour said recalls can come through in three ways. Companies realize they mislabeled, a consumer calls to complain of a potential mislabeling or inspectors might see possible cross-contamination risks during a facility or process inspection.
Some labels will point out that a product is produced in a facility that could cause cross-contamination with allergens, even if a product itself does not contain any.
“That statement is really saying that I’m listing all my allergens here, but I may also process something with nuts. There might be traces,” Batten said.
When it comes to eating out, restaurant menus do not typically declare allergens. That means it’s up to the foodservice staff to know what goes in the food and be able to relay that to customers at risk for allergic reactions.
“Due to the serious nature of food allergies, the current Georgia Food Service Rules and Regulations … requires that the person in charge must demonstrate knowledge of the foods that have been identified as major food allergens and be familiar with the symptoms,” said Chris Rustin, director of the Georgia Department of Public Health Environmental Health Section.
Symptoms of a food allergy include allergic reactions, anaphylaxis and even death, he said. It’s also important for foodservice staff to be aware of food allergens, which could be a matter of mortality for some customers. Rustin added that another step foodservice establishments must take is to clean and sanitize equipment, surfaces and utensils that come into contact with raw animal protein allergens, such as shellfish, before being used for other foods to prevent the “inadvertent introduction of an allergen into a product that the allergen was not intended to be added as an ingredient.”
“With increased knowledge and understanding … food employees are better suited to inform customers about foods containing a major food allergen to reduce the likelihood of exposure,” Rustin said.