Tag Archives: Food Labeling Laws

In a Perfect Food Allergy World…

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.

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May Contain the Following: Stress

This product may have come into contact with the following: How many times have you been in a grocery store aisle reading an ingredient list of a new product with excitement only to find these words at the very bottom like a disappointing end to a great story. It can hit you like a ton of bricks, or knock the wind right out of you. For lack of a better term, it’s a real bummer.

As you put the item back, it’s easy to get discouraged, angry, or upset. You may curse the product or the company but, in my opinion, I think we should feel the exact opposite. Every time I see this or similar wording I’m happy I live in a time and a place where information is readily available for allergen safety. After all, precautionary labelling is completely voluntary in Canada.

I have vivid memories from when I was young of my mom calling company after company attempting to get information about production lines, products in the vicinity, and other foods that the company made. She spent hours with a house phone (on a cord I might add) pressed against her ear with boxes of food, paper, and permanent markers sprawled out in front of her. Each time she got a complete answer she’d mark a or X on the box and then feverishly write down any other information they would give her. She did this for hours on end just to find out if certain products were safe for me to eat, or because I mentioned I wanted try, for instance, Fruit Roll-Up© (which I couldn’t) or PopTarts© (which I could). She scoured this new frontier called the Internet for any information she could find, from website FAQ’s to small forums made up of other parents. She, just like many others, was desperate for some clarity or visibility to make sure our cupboards and grocery store aisle didn’t become a scary place. She spent hours on hold, getting half-truths, rude comments, or no answers at all just to ensure my childhood was a little bit better. She was a brave explorer in in a time where precautionary labelling was in its infancy – just trying to make sense of it all.

30's woman on a serious phone call.Today, that amount of effort seems daunting and overwhelming. I can only image the anxiety and fear she had each time a new food came into our house. Now, with food allergies being more prevalent, and manufacturers taking more precautions with their products and labelling, more information is at my finger tips from a variety of sources. If I have questions, I can contact a company by email, hotline, or check out reviews from thousands of others in various online media sources like websites, social media, articles, etc. If all that doesn’t satisfy my craving for knowledge I can reach out and read the many online publications dedicated to food allergy safety (and I can do that through social media as well). But my first step will always be reading an ingredient list.

I encourage you to read Health Canada’s interview with Food Allergy Canada where they detail the most recent food allergy labelling guidelines:  http://foodallergycanada.ca/2016/10/5-questions-for-health-canada

The “may contain” label was introduced to warn people about potential allergens not listed in the ingredient list. This was done in case another food product during the production process could have come into contact, fallen into, been on the same production line, or any other incident that could have contaminated your product with an allergen. Although more and more companies are disclosing this information and becoming transparent on the true risks of their products, it is still important to do your research if you are unsure about a new food.

– Arianne K

For more information about food labelling, check out Food Allergy Canada’s website.

Instructing Others About How to Read Food Labels

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Having grown up with food allergies, I found that a special skill I acquired from a very young age was the ability to carefully read food ingredient labels.  I sometimes joked that, as a child, I read more labels than I did books (which when I think about it is very true!).  That being said, for people who don’t have food allergies, reading ingredient labels to make sure they don’t contain specific food allergens can be a complicated task to navigate.

There are helpful tips that can be given to those less experienced with reading ingredient labels; these  can help them successfully identify what foods are or are not allergen free.  The first important step is to identify what allergens need to be avoided. Canada has new labelling guidelines that require manufacturers to use simple language when referring to priority allergens. Become familiar with these new guidelines at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/label-etiquet/allergen/index-eng.php

It can also be useful to have knowledge about what types of foods typically contain what allergens.  For example, some ice creams, while typically a no–go for people with dairy allergies, may also pose a problem for some people with egg or nut allergies.  Being able to identify what allergens are commonly found in what foods comes over time  along with a general knowledge about what purpose different food allergens serve in different food products (i.e. egg as a binder or wheat flour as a thickener).  That being said, the ingredient label is always the best way to verify what is in your food.

When instructing someone about how to read an ingredient label, after making sure they know what allergens they are looking for, ensure that the label is read VERY carefully.  This includes ensuring that the person who is reading the label is able to identify EACH ingredient listed.  If they are ever unsure, it is always a good idea to consult the person with the allergy to determine if listed ingredients are safe.  It also is never a bad idea to re-read (or re- re-read!) the label so one can confidently say that the ingredient list doesn’t contain any allergens.

Another thing to look out for when reading food labels is to identify if the label lists any allergens that MIGHT be found in the food product.  These food allergen warnings are most commonly listed directly below the ingredient list and commonly say something along the lines of “This product MAY CONTAIN” or is produced in the “SAME FACILITY” or on the “SAME MACHINE” as certain allergens.   While it is not definite that these foods contain these allergens, eating these items still poses a huge risk (and why risk it, right?).  It is also important to make sure that whoever is reading the ingredient label understands that any food that ‘May Contain’ an allergen should best be treated as if it still contains that allergen (and therefore avoided).

Last, but not least, while it’s important for those around to be educated about reading ingredient labels, you are still the primary person responsible for ensuring that you are staying safe and avoiding food allergens. Always personally ensure that you are able to eat questionable foods before taking a risk.

 Caitlyn P. 

 

 

 

 

Labeling Laws, Travel, and Making the Safe Choice

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Have you ever purchased one product over another simply based upon which country the product was made in? I have. One thing that concerns me is the fact that not all countries have the same labeling laws. Canada now has stricter labeling laws than it once did. This has forced many Canadian manufacturers to label whether their products contain any of the top 11 priority allergens. I have wanted to buy certain chocolate bars in the past; but I have worried about the fact that the same company also, for example, made chocolate bars with almonds as well.

There are some countries where labeling laws have different requirements, especially when it comes to precautionary label warnings such as “may contain” or “made in a facility that also processes…” statements. I tend to stick to products that are from either Canada or the U.S. as I feel more comfortable with the labeling in North America. I’ve had reactions to soy (undeclared) in some products from other countries and it has led me to be far more careful about what I buy and who I buy the product from. When in doubt, I have always emailed or called the company and asked for specific ingredient lists and about the practices they use to avoid cross-contamination (if they make products I am allergic to). When in your own country, it is, naturally, easier to find products that are safe for you to consume and with labels you can trust.

It becomes significantly trickier when you go to other countries, which have different labeling laws, regardless of the nature of your trip. Through experience, I have always found it important to look into national policies ahead of time. When traveling, I always bring a few snacks that I know are safe so I can limit the processed foods I will need to buy in a foreign country. Something as simple as tea could be unsafe if you have, for example, a soy allergy. Here in Canada, there are some brands which state “Contains soy.” This has always surprised me. From my perspective, tea is just dried fruits and leaves etcetera. So, when purchasing tea from other countries, I am a little hesitant. Some products will be safer than others. Ultimately, if you are traveling to another country, my biggest tip for you is to plan ahead. Find out about the country or countries’ labeling laws ahead of time. There is no harm in asking lots of questions! You are, as always, better safe than sorry.

 

Erika