Ah yes, the dreaded recalls. Even when doing your due diligence by calling companies asking about their ingredients and reading ingredient labels carefully, recalls can occur and cause a life-threatening reaction by surprise. This is why even when you’re trying your hardest, you have to remember that you can’t control everything, and there is always a chance of some type of cross-contact- at the farm, at the facility supplier level, etc. For this reason, it’s good to always be prepared for the worst and carry your epinephrine and Benadryl with you wherever you go.
In order for a food allergy related recall to happen, most likely someone allergic reacted to a product they thought was safe, which is a highly scary reality. It could also be a situation where a voluntary recall is issued by the company because they determined contamination occurred or may have occurred and so they released a product recall preventatively to try to get ahead of it. I occasionally will follow recalls with the United States Department of Agriculture website, and FARE has a newsletter you can sign up for to be notified about food notices and recalls.
It’s my understanding that recalls can occur a couple of ways. It could be contamination in a specific facility if peanuts (or whatever the allergen) are present but segregated, I’ve called on products where the lines with a product don’t package things with peanuts but the equipment directly next to it does, and so there can be accidental contamination this way due to close proximity. It can also happen in peanut-free or allergen-free facility where the individual ingredients coming into the facility could be unknowingly contaminated with allergen residue beforehand. It can even happen if an employee at a company is eating while handling equipment/food and contaminates products this way. Most often, if a company is “top 8 free” they won’t allow those top-8 ingredients to be brought into the building by their employees, since it goes against the purpose of their mission and products.
I personally avoid items made on shared equipment with peanuts and in a shared facility with peanut ingredients, because I feel the chances for cross-contact are overall much higher. However, this does not eliminate all chances of a reaction, since it is nearly impossible to know the source of each individual ingredient going into the product and where it’s been before it got to the facility using it to make the item I’m consuming. Many legumes are used as “cover crops” to provide organic matter and nutrients to the soil, legumes in particular are a great option for farmers practicing crop rotation alternating legumes and grains on the same soil, because of legumes ability to absorb nitrogen and having low water needs. I hope I am explaining this correctly, but you can read about it in the 2020 book (I read it free via the library app Libby) ‘How To Be a Conscious Eater’.
Right now in the U.S., it is not a requirement to let the consumer know if an allergen is on shared equipment or in a shared facility with a product. It would be a dream if this were required, I would love it if companies needed to release the full scope and life of where each ingredient came from, to know what *might* be in the end product because of what it has been in contact with before.
Most companies won’t know exactly where it came from and was grown, how it was stored there, distributed, etc. The only way to know this information is if a company is really on top of their labeling and typically if they’re open with their food transparency to consumers. One company coming to mind that is typically this way is Trader Joe’s, and this information you have to find out by calling their customer service line and inquiring on each individual barcode, it isn’t always on each product label.
Note: I share this information for Trader Joe’s in my post on cross-contact, but here’s their phone line again (current as of January 2021): (626) 599-3817
Some free-from and top-8-free businesses such as Annie Mays Sweet Cafe will track each ingredient down to the source, to ensure there’s no contamination, which is amazing and I love dining at places like this. However, they are few and far between. I also still believe there’s a tiny sliver of a chance where the supplier of the ingredients could have contamination at the source level due to something they don’t realize, like an employee contaminating something, so in my mind there’s always a chance it could cause a reaction, so I try to not ever believe I am 100% safe. If I feel a reaction coming on, I always want to act on it and not brush it off.
Product recalls (and cross-contact in general) have caused me to question many things! One result of this is that I try to eat less processed food, since I feel it lessens the risk of eating something that will later be recalled or that is contaminated, since I can control more in my own kitchen. For example, I used to start my morning off with a Cliff bar (This brand is no longer safe for me, they changed their facilities, sadly) and those are highly processed, but also something made in a facility where I’ve seen recalls happen before a number of times. I started wondering why I was risking this each morning, when I could just be making a fresh smoothie or meal for myself from more whole ingredients I can visually see such as vegetables, fruit, or eggs, where it feels and looks less risky. One favorite thing of mine to do that I don’t do enough is make my own limited ingredient granola bars at home. There’s a persian nut bar recipe I modify to meet my own food restrictions from the cookbook Poh Bakes 100 Greats. Her Netflix show is also so fun if you haven’t seen Poh & Co!
While I greatly appreciate having pre-made snacks and meals that are “safe” (I try to use this word lightly for obvious reasons) I also know I need to try to limit them, and use them more sparingly. Vacations, road trips, long days away from home, long car rides– those are times it’s completely acceptable to eat them, but when I’m home all day enjoying a lazy Saturday, I don’t need to start my day off with a Chocolate Salted Caramel Protein Luna Bar (*sigh* this used to be my favorite flavor), or eat a pre-made frozen meal for lunch. My personal goal is to try to eat more fresh, limited ingredient, less processed and therefore less-risky foods that weren’t produced in a facility. I do scrub all my produce well before eating it, too, due to cross-contact and contamination.
The Grain Craft Recall of 2017
Lastly, I want to mention one major food recall that has always stuck with me, you may remember this if you’re in the allergen community and have been for a while. Back in 2017 there was a national flour recall for peanut contamination stemming from a company called Grain Craft. This was extremely problematic because Grain Craft doesn’t sell to individual people like you & me, they are a flour provider for the food-service industry, and a huge one. They’re the supplier for entire companies. They supply the flour to Kellogg’s, Hostess, Frito Lay, and Rose Gold. Frito Lay and certain lines of Hostess are known to be safe brands for peanut-allergic individuals, so at the time it was very important for them to spread the word about the recall, and quick.
This flour recall involved but was not limited to: cereals, chips, frozen pizza crusts, cookies, doughnuts, crackers, cakes, and so much more. You can imagine the damage and all the flour involved that was tainted with peanut traces.
In the case of Grain Craft, the company Grain Craft has actually never used peanuts in their facilities. It was that the wheat they purchased that was grown in shared areas with peanuts in Georgia, so it was contaminated at the growing source, prior to getting to their mill in GA. This fact was particularly scary, because it goes against my idea of fresh food being safe, or checking a facility for using peanuts, and causes me to emphasize that you can never be 100% sure of ingredients. I am now adding peanut-growing states in the South to my list to be wary about, not that I wasn’t already, but sheesh! After this, I have tried to really watch my intake of processed foods and eat more “whole” food, not to say I don’t eat processed, but this recall is always at the forefront of my mind.
The Lack of Food Labeling Standards in the U.S.
I am very passionate about raising awareness on the lack of standards in the United States surrounding food labeling, and recalls are one thing that it’s important to continue to be aware of, but even with good labeling, reactions to undeclared allergens can still occur. The labeling laws in the U.S. are going to be a topic mentioned throughout Invisibly Allergic, because it’s so important to keeping those in the food allergy community safe. If there’s a way to prevent someone’s death due to trace amounts, you’d hope companies would want to, but they clearly have different priorities. I do believe recalls would be caught much faster here if corporations were more aware of their ingredients, and held more accountable for what is in their products. If companies were required to inform the the public in a standard way of the potential allergens they could be ingesting, and required to label for ‘may contain’ that would be ideal. While it still wouldn’t eliminate the problem of recalls fully, it would be a huge step in a more safe direction for those with food allergies.
If you like this post, check out my blog post on What Is Cross-Contact with Examples & The Food Conglomerates That Control The World’s Food next.