recalled food product - invisibly allergic blog

The Dangers Of Food Allergy Recalls & Food Voluntary Recalls

What Is A Food Recall?

A food recall is when a food product producer voluntarily pulls a product off the market because there’s reason to believe it may cause consumer illness in some way. It is possible for government agencies to step in and request or require a food product recall as well, such as an FDA recall, but most are voluntarily done by the food producer. Food recalls may happen for reasons such as the discovery of bacteria or organisms such as salmonella or parasites, the discovery of dangerous foreign objects such as metal or broken glass, and the discovery of a top 9 food allergen in the U.S. that doesn’t appear in the ingredient list

What Is A Voluntary Recall Vs. Mandatory Recall?

Voluntary recalls can come from all types of places such as product distributors, product manufacturers, food processors, pharmaceutical companies, medical device companies, and even the auto industry. Voluntary recalls may be issued by the federal government or its agencies, while a mandatory recall is issued by the United States government.

What Is A Food Allergy Recall?

A food allergy recall is specific to when a product is recalled because of a top allergen being involved, likely contaminating something and putting the lives of food allergic individuals in danger. Other food recalls can include bacteria or foreign objects.

Unfortunately, Food Allergy Recalls & FDA Recalls Do Happen

Even when doing your due diligence by calling & contacting food companies asking about their ingredients and reading ingredient labels for top allergens carefully, recalls can occur and cause a life-threatening reaction by surprise. This is not to cause fear-mongering, but it’s a reality of life with a food allergy, and is why even when you’re trying your hardest to avoid an allergen, allergic reactions can happen. We all have to remember that we can’t control everything, and there is always a chance of some type of cross-contact whether it be at the farm, at the facility level, or in the final product packaging stage. For this reason, it’s good to always be prepared for the worst and carry your epinephrine and Benadryl with you wherever you go. It’s also important to educate yourself and others on the lack of protection we have around food allergen labeling in the United States and by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA). If you live or are dining out/eating in another country, I always suggest looking up the labeling laws, because some countries such as Canada, Australia, and the European Union (EU) are more transparent in their food law requirements and can actually open more doors in terms of food options for those with food allergies due to this.

In order for a food allergy-related recall to happen (due to bacteria, foreign object, or top allergen), either the company caught it early in some way and is acting preventatively, or someone became ill, injured, or had an allergic reaction. I occasionally will follow food recalls with the United States Department of Agriculture website, and FARE has a newsletter you can sign up for to receive “allergy alerts” via email and stay current with food recall data and major product recalls.

Recalls can happen in many ways, but performing food allergy tests can help eliminate the issue. I talk about this more in a specific post dedicated to food swab tests & allergy detection dogs. Most often, if a company is “top 9 free” they won’t allow those top 9 ingredients to be brought into the building by their employees, since it goes against the purpose of their mission and products, and this is a wonderful best practice implemented by allergy-friendly food companies.

How I Purchase Products & Read Labels

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 much higher. However, this does not eliminate all chances of an allergic reaction entirely, 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.

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 top 9 allergen. It would be a dream if this were required and is a mission of mine to make happen. 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 top allergens 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 about each individual barcode because ingredient info in full isn’t always on every individual ingredients label.

Note: I share this information for Trader Joe’s in my post on cross-contact, and in my Resources tab, but here’s their phone line again (current as of 2022): (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 cross-contact 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 food could cause a reaction, so I try to not ever believe I am 100% safe and always keep my epinephrine medication on me. If I feel a reaction coming on, I am prepared to act on it and not brush it off. 

Pre-Made & Highly Processed Food Risk Level

Product recalls (and cross-contact in general) has caused me to question many things! One result of this is that I try to eat less processed foods since I feel it lessens the risk of eating something that will later be recalled or that is contaminated with my allergen. For example, I used to start my morning off with a Cliff bar (This brand is no longer safe for my peanut allergy, as they changed their facilities and now use peanuts, sadly). However, those bars are highly processed and a brand where I’ve seen food recalls happen a number of times. I started wondering why I was risking this each morning when I could just be making a fresh smoothie or oatmeal with fixins for myself from more whole ingredients I can visually see (such as vegetables, fruit, seeds, etc.) where it feels and makes sense to me that it would be less risky to cause an allergic food reaction. One favorite thing of mine to do that I don’t do enough is to 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! I love modifying recipes in ways that work for me, and this is something I’m sure I’ll go into more on the Invisibly Allergic blog in the future! It’s a way I can still experience another culture and food traditions, but in a safe way in the comfort of my own home with ingredients, I can, for the most part, trust. 

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 like to try to limit them and use them more sparingly, to limit my food allergy allergic reactions. Vacations, road trips, long days away from home, long car rides– those are times it’s completely acceptable for me to eat and rely on processed and pre-made meals, 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, can no longer have this brand, either), or eat a pre-made frozen meal for lunch. My personal goal is to try to eat more fresh, limited ingredients, less processed, and therefore less-risky foods that weren’t produced in a large un-transparent 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 can’t post on food recalls without mentioning one major food recall that has always stuck with me. It happened back in 2017, so 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 cross-contact 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 food conglomerate companies. They supply the flour to Kellogg’s, Hostess, Frito Lay, and Rose Gold. Frito Lay. This is troublesome because Lays 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 quickly because millions of food allergic lives were on the line.

This flour recall involved but was not limited to: cereals, chips, frozen baked goods, 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 its facilities. It was that the wheat they purchased was grown in shared areas with peanuts in Georgia, so it was contaminated at the growing source, prior to getting to their flour mill. 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 are guaranteed allergen-free. 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! I do try to avoid crops grown in the South if possible, and try to do California and other states more, if I can. It’s hard to know where to draw the line, so each person should eat according to their comfort level and where they fall on the food allergy spectrum.

Peanut Cover Crops & Farming

Speaking of this Grain Craft food recall, I only recently learned that many legumes (such as peanuts) are used as “cover crops” to provide organic matter and nutrients to the soil. This is because legumes, in particular, are a great option for farmers practicing crop rotation alternating legumes and grains on the same soil, because of their 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 ‘How To Be a Conscious Eater’ (I read it free via the library app Libby). I think it’s important to know these things to have a complete food allergen awareness and a realistic picture of places cross-contact can come from.

The Lack of Food Labeling Standards in the U.S.

I am very passionate about raising awareness of the lack of food allergy labeling and allergy transparency standards in the United States surrounding required food labeling. I would love to be a part of a larger mission to increase required food labeling practices in the U.S. so we know as consumers what top allergens are in the facilities of products we’re eating and putting on our bodies/in our homes. I go into this more in other posts, such as misleading food labels & the 10 biggest food companies that own the world. Food recalls are one thing that it’s important to continue to be aware of, in the food allergy community or not, because even with good labeling, reactions to undeclared allergens can still occur, and not to mention, these recalls are for bacteria, parasites, and foreign objects like glass, too.

Disability Rights Are Human Rights

The food labeling laws in the U.S. are going to be a topic mentioned throughout Invisibly Allergic because it’s such an important way we could easily keep the 32+ million Americans with food allergies safe. Thinking about 32 million Americans with food allergies is massive, and thinking of their friends and family networks keeping an eye out for them is an even larger number of individuals we can’t know who are impacted by food allergies. Not to mention, food allergies can develop at any age, and happen to anyone. This is why food allergy rights, and disability rights, are human rights.

If there’s a way to prevent someone’s death due to trace amounts of an allergen, you’d hope food companies would want to, but they clearly have different priorities as they aren’t protecting their consumers and are focusing on being a business making profits. That’s why it is on us as a food allergy community and the disability community to put policies into place to protect individuals. If companies were required to inform the public in a standardized way of the potential top allergens they could be ingesting, and required to label for ‘may contain/not suitable for that would be ideal for everyone and help get ahead of recalls as well. While it still wouldn’t eliminate the problem of food recalls fully, it would be a huge step in a more safe direction for those with food allergies.

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