How Do Certified Allergy-Free Companies Ensure They’re Allergy-Free?
I know how funny this may sound, but I recently had an ‘ah-hah’ moment while reading a Free2Be cookie box at the grocery store! This epiphany led to some new security about food allergy-safe eating that I wanted to share in this post.
I read the cookie box ingredients as I usually do, out of habit, even though it says “peanut-free” and is clearly free of the top major food allergens and from a certified-allergy friendly company. Oh well- I like the extra reassurance reading it each time gives, and it’s a good practice. I like ensuring that I fully understand what “peanut-free” means since there’s no regulation around claims like this on food labels due to the U.S. FDA labeling laws being very lax. Luckily, Free2Be is a fantastic brand, and in this case, it means it is actually a peanut-free facility. I started wondering how these companies ensure that their certified allergen-free food items are 100% guaranteed. It makes me anxious about how I could confirm this food safety level to another person when it isn’t required by the FDA and for each ingredient, so I wanted to understand where this sense of security came from.
I remembered that I had emailed the brand Enjoy Life Foods, another allergen-free company, not too long ago to ask this question: What steps do they take to 100% ensure their customer’s safety? I went back in my emails to see if they had emailed me back, and sure enough, they had!
I’m not sure about Free2Be, or if this is the same across the board for all allergy-free brands, but I imagine they do what Enjoy Life Foods does or a similar process. And same with the local Top 8 free bakery in my town Annie May’s Sweet Cafe, ensuring their customer’s safety.
Enjoy Life Foods Process
I learned from the Enjoy Life Foods email that they also do not allow outside food to come into the facilities. Then, they perform rapid tests on the raw products they purchase, as well as the finished products. I’m assuming that before buying the raw products, they reach out to the source to find out about if it has come in contact with any of the allergens they are avoiding, etc. to make their lives easier and cheaper, but they didn’t explicitly explain this step in their response.
I was interested in these food tests, so I researched if rapid food tests and food swab tests were identical, and I have gathered that they are different. They can vary, and are constantly being changed and improved upon. However, their purpose is the same– they’re all checking if there is any allergen residue. Here comes my epiphany moment– the fact that companies are using these food tests is a game-changer because, I imagine, it eliminates the chance of a massive product recall happening later on. That was my light-bulb moment where I knew with certainty that the product I was eating was safe and wouldn’t later be deemed unsafe since they tested it! Very exciting and reassuring, as food recalls are a scary topic in the food allergy community.
I read articles online discussing how these food allergen tests work and how companies need to choose the correct test. It discussed some scenarios where something may test as being “a false negative” for peanuts but still contain trace amounts; here’s one 2019 article on Food Safety Tech in case you’re interested in reading it. I also asked Annie Mays Sweet Cafe more about how they test for allergens and would like to one day do an interview with them about the process for certified allergen-free businesses. We’ll see if that can happen in the future!
The “Smell Test” You Can Perform At Home
I am always nervous about eating processed foods because of the chance of a recall, but I do trust these “top 8 free” type companies a lot more than, say, other brands that only let me know what is in the facility but aren’t as allergy-conscious. It may sound funny and not trustworthy, but I almost always smell my food before I eat it! Not a cooked meal I made, but I will smell raw ingredients or pre-made items and processed food items. If you have a food allergy, you may already know what I mean and do the same thing. My nose and sense of smell can be an incredible detector of obvious contamination and higher levels of peanuts in an item.
Food Allergy Detection Dogs & Portable Sensors
Of course, my nose can’t detect trace amounts the same way a peanut allergy detection dog or an individual rapid test can (like the Nima portable peanut sensor), but it’s steered me in the right direction many times.
As I linked above, there are portable sensors like the Nima portable peanut sensor and other similar products like it on the market, although not very easy to come by and expensive (as of 2022). I have not purchased one, but if it ever becomes affordable enough and something I could use often, I could see it as another safety preventative measure to help me stay safe when eating out, traveling, etc. I haven’t rushed to buy one yet, and the hurdle I see with these products is that you still have to purchase the food/ingredients first to sample it. This is the same downside of a food allergy detection dog, in addition to having to purchase the dog and also purchase the food and products before the dog can test it. It makes this option unattainable for many people because of the cost. And as I’ve discussed here before, it’s most often minorities and low-income people with disabilities and food allergies. I recently learned that black children are 7% more likely to have food allergies than white children, according to a 2020 study.
It isn’t ideal, and I prefer to eat ingredients that I know aren’t from a facility with my allergen. However, I could see both detection tools being used on food my friends and family make for me that I still feel iffy about when I’m traveling, or to test raw ingredients if I can’t find something that is labeled where the company has disclosed the allergens in the facility! So I’m not saying it’s a hard no, I may get a portable sensor or peanut detection dog one day, but right now I’m not in a hurry.
In terms of peanut detection dogs, these dogs can cost upwards of 10,000 according to the American Kennel Club. I’ve personally reached out to a few trainers and the lowest I found was 15k and there are waitlists of 2-4 years. While it is not a huge amount of money for a large sense of security, I still run into the dilemma that I’d be doing this to be able to have a riskier lifestyle, and am not sure if it’s worth it for me. I will share that the AKC website states, “…it can be impossible for people to detect minute traces of peanuts. Dogs, on the other hand, with their superior sense of smell, can successfully tackle the task. Just as a dog can be trained for explosive or bedbug detection, he also can be trained to sniff for the presence of peanuts and peanut products. For some people with a severe peanut allergy, these peanut detection dogs are proving to be invaluable.” A detection dog and sensor are very cool options to have out there! I hope to see more cost-effective similarities in the future.
Food Recall Prevention
I was excited that these allergen detecting tests are a way to prevent food recalls from happening with this upfront testing because recalls are one of those things that make all the hard work of vetting a product for being safe still not be 100% accurate. If companies are correctly utilizing these food allergy tests, they will be able to catch it before it’s problematic or deadly, and that’s incredible! Like I’ve stressed in other posts, if you see a practice in place or a product you like, I’m a big believer in supporting it with your $, leaving a good review, positive feedback and testimonials, etc. Let’s support companies and businesses doing this rapid food allergy testing and/or doing a great job for the food allergy community!
Now that we’ve been through COVID-19, I will say, I have a little less faith in these rapid food tests and swab testing being 100% accurate. So it is one thing I had to mention even though it felt negative to bring up, and I still approve of the use and practice of these tests!
Shared Facilities As My Allergen
The brand So Delicious Dairy Free is a favorite of mine; they do allergy testing in their facilities, too. However, I still only trust certain products of theirs that are not in a shared facility or on shared equipment with peanuts. This is a personal choice because I have read horror stories about customers reacting to their products, even with them taking all the precautions and testing. I am cross-contact reactive to minuscule particles and trace amounts of peanuts. So, even though the company is testing products made on shared equipment, such as peanuts, I still avoid those safety measures by them because eating anything in the same facility as my allergen is not a risk worth taking due to where I fall on the food allergy spectrum. Anytime peanuts are on shared equipment or in the same facility, I don’t take the chance because I’ve had enough reactions to know the cons outweigh the pros.
I started looking up what other companies utilize food detection tests and was not finding much readily available information online, so I am going to begin emailing and asking companies I regularly use to see if they use any type of allergy testing. If not, I’ll recommend that they do and make my recall prevention case. It can be good to ask or make a suggestion. Like anything, I did see that some brands of detection tests can be more accurate than others, and likely that is always going to be an issue, but I believe the more the product is examined and tested for allergens, and labeled accordingly, the better! At least for now when the FDA isn’t supporting the food allergy community in terms of food labeling laws.
As much as I want to get to the root of why peanut allergies and food allergies, in general, are soaring, and find a cure, these types of products are great to see in the meantime and able to prevent recalls!
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