In a perfect world people that grow, harvest, package, process, and cook food would be completely open and honest about their ingredients. They would know which products were produced where, and with a touch of a button, people with food allergies would easily be able to look up which products were potentially cross-contaminated.
For those inexperienced to the world of food allergies, you might think we’ve already arrived in that perfect world. Here in Canada, labelling laws require that companies clearly indicate the presence of priority allergens in their ingredient list. In 2012, new laws came into effect to try and make those lists easier to read- for example, if a milk derivative such as casein was used in a product, the manufacturer had to start listing “milk” in their lists.
However, we still have a long way to go. For those at-risk for anaphylaxis, one of the most concerning loopholes is the lack of mandatory cross-contamination declarations. Most companies have some sort of protocols in place for thoroughly washing equipment between products, but it’s often automated and isn’t guaranteed. Some ingredients can easily spread through air, for example powders like wheat flours. Cooking oils can create fine mist, and sulphites can be added as a gas to help prevent spices from clumping. Once theses airborne particles settle, they could easily cross-contaminate other products made simultaneously in the same factory. This can happen in people’s homes, too, cross-contaminating a kitchen over time in the same way that dust leaves a fine powder on everything. Surprisingly, however, the requirement to declare possible sources of cross-contamination for priority allergens is completely optional for companies. This is one of the nightmares for those with severe allergies, since it means you have to call each company individually and find out if they have chosen to mention that they use your allergen in the same factory or not.
It gets harder if your allergen is not a “priority allergen.” Let’s not forget that people can be allergic to any food! In Canada, the priority allergens are determined by the top 10 most common food allergens. That said, just because other food allergies are rare doesn’t mean they can’t cause severe reactions. Let me be the example here: my most serious allergic reactions have been caused by cherries and black pepper! There are situations when companies aren’t required to list those as an ingredient, let alone mention the risk of cross-contamination. As a result, my absolute favourite products and companies are those that take the time to list every single ingredient on the label, instead of hiding ingredients in vague statements such as “flavours” or “spices.” Some statements are misleading, too- “artificial flavours” is listed when there is any combination of flavours where most of the flavours are synthetically derived. They can still mix in the natural extracts, however, which was a frequent source of hives for me before I realized what was happening. Now, as a rule I simply don’t buy or use anything pre-packaged unless I’ve contacted the company. Whether that’s food, toothpaste, or even shampoo- if there’s a chance I might swallow it by accident, I need to know that none of my many allergens are present!
So then how do we deal with making labels more helpful for consumers with food allergies, while not overwhelming the packaging with the text of the ingredients? Some products that handle labelling well use the following techniques:
- Less text because of fewer ingredients. You also have the added advantage of higher quality products if there are fewer additives. Plus there’s the entertainment factor- I turn into a crazed fan girl screaming with delight when I find products with only one ingredient listed.
- Folded lists of ingredients hidden behind stickers. These are very common in the hygiene industry, where there are simply too many ingredients to list them all in a readable sized font. At least they’re all attached to the product, though!
- Complete ingredient lists in plain language. It’s like a breath of fresh air when companies actually list every ingredient. I recognize that companies may want to be able to keep certain things proprietary, but honestly- the competition could theoretically decode most of the ingredients with lab testing… and the average consumer is more interested in the convenience of not having to make it themselves!
- Special Quick Response (QR) Codes with links to online ingredient information. This is usually in addition to the ingredient lists, but adds extra information vital to the allergic consumer like a detailed chart about cross-contamination risks.
- Contact information on the package, and staff who know product ingredients. I am 100% more likely to buy a product on the spot if I can reach someone knowledgeable while I’m at the store. I am also highly appreciative of companies who respond to my emailed queries with thorough answers.
At the end of the day, we don’t live in a perfect world. There are no perfect companies nor process that can make guarantees for all allergens. Someday, ingredient labelling may become obsolete as new technologies are being developed for consumer food allergen detection tests. But until the day when we can all afford our newly invented hand-held tricorders, I’ll be relying on companies with honesty, integrity, and a deep sense of pride in sharing with the world the quality of what they make. Here’s to hoping those companies flourish and multiply!
– Janice H.