invisibly_allergic-Blog-Food-allergy-labels

Misleading Food Labels: U.S. Food Labeling Laws & FDA Rules

The Lack Of FDA Labeling Requirements

Due to my life-threatening peanut allergy, I’m highly aware of food labels when shopping at the grocery store. I’ve definitely seen my fair share of food ingredient labels and am more familiar with them than I’d ideally care to be. Something alarming I’ve come across over the years is food products that are advertised to be, and making claims to be allergy-friendly such as, “top 8 free” “nut-free” “free-from facility” and “gluten-free”, when the products are actually not any of those things. This is legal in the U.S. because while the FDA does “watch over” these statements and claims, there’s zero regulation on them, meaning they’re entirely for marketing and could be entirely false. I want to spread awareness about this common and deadly misconception for those with food allergies. Getting standardized and transparent food labels in the United States is something I am passionate about taking action to rectify, for the safety of myself and for lives of millions of others reliant every day on these sub-par food labeling laws. This is a topic I discuss throughout Invisibly Allergic because it would be huge for the food allergy community to have more transparent labeling by food companies.

Some of the top 2 benefits of transparency regarding allergens in the facilities would be:

  • 1. More Consumers Can Purchase A Larger Variety Of Products
    • For the average consumer, more brands would be available for purchase due to the increased transparency on what allergens are in the facility, and “may contain/are not suitable” for someone with a top 9 food allergy – this would be a win-win for both consumer and these food conglomerates and food companies because more people can buy the products after knowing the risk-level.
  • 2. Consumer Ability To Know What They’re Potentially Ingesting 
    • Right now, consumers know if a food item purposefully contains big 9 allergens (milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, sesame, and soybeans), thanks to the FASTER Act of 2021. However, if an item unintentionally contains trace amounts of a big 9/top 9 allergen, it’s not required to be disclosed. This could mean if the allergen is on the same equipment, and contaminates the products, it is not disclosed. This is why passing a food labeling law & FDA requirement asking for transparency of allergens in the facility is vital to protect people’s lives in the food allergy community.

Food Company Liability Vs. Consumer Protection

For many in the food allergy community like myself, food labels are a matter of life or death, and with food allergies growing at record rates, the food labeling laws in the U.S. and in general need serious revamping to protect citizens. It shouldn’t be this difficult and time-consuming to definitively find out what you’re consuming or giving to others to consume. Right now, I have to email every brand and/or food product before I ingest it, and it’s not required for them to disclose if peanuts are in the facility, and there’s no repercussion if the information I receive on the allergens in the facility is inaccurate. Right now, food conglomerates and companies have the upper hand and hold all the control, and labeling laws are more of a way to market a product and/or cover a company’s liability, instead of what they should exist to do, protect and serve the consumer eating the food.

Food Sensitivities, Food Intolerances, & Health Consciousness: More Reasons For Transparent Labeling Laws

In general, and if I can afford to, I aim to eat organic produce and work hard to be aware of what ingredients and chemicals I’m ingesting and putting into my body outside of my food allergy. Due to both my food allergy and being health-conscious, I do check product food and non-food labeling to avoid extremely processed products with a long list of chemical ingredients and words that I do not recognize. I’m not saying people need to eat the same way I do, not at all by any means, but I do believe that the majority of people- food allergy and/or health conscious or not- would want to know the ingredients are potentially inside their food. This is especially true for anyone with other dietary restrictions, if trying to avoid cross-contact for someone else, or if they have a food sensitivity or food intolerance. It’s my belief that the ingredients need to be transparent and provided to the consumer to be able to make their own decision.

FDA Lack of Consumer Ingredient Transparency

As I mentioned, I consider myself extremely cautious and aware of food and non-food ingredient labeling, but even I was fooled recently by four separate food products making considerable allergy-related claims that are false and misleading. I wanted to share these here to provide clear examples of what to be on the lookout for, and how large of an issue it is that there is no FDA law preventing food companies in the U.S from making false claims around ingredients and food practices. 

Alarming Allergy-Related Claims and Statements

With the lack of regulation on labeling laws, often companies can legally make false or misleading claims without ANY implications of their statements. I’ve learned this even goes for small logos like this commonly used “made in a peanut-free facility” logo:

Peanut Free Logo

I do believe that the brand ‘Everyday Favorites’ is actually a peanut-free facility, but this is an example of the logo which you’d think consumers would be able to fully trust, and sadly, it is not. You can read this Snack Safely article which explains there here is no regulation around these labels and claims, so they can be slapped on any product without any consequence.

Other Commonly Used Allergy-Related Labels & Claims:

  • “School Safe”
  • “Nut-Free”
  • “May Contain”
  • “Made on Shared Equipment With Foods Containing ___allergen___”
  • “Made in a Shared Facility With ___allergens___”
  • “Made in a Dedicated Nut Free Facility”

It’s complicated because the last two above I DO trust and will purchase products and eat them if they state the product is made in a facility without peanuts, or in a dedicated nut-free or peanut-free facility. However, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is not approving these, checking them, or creating any repercussions if these are false or untrue, or forget to be updated, etc. This is a huge problem, as people’s lives are depending on this information being accurate and true.

4 False “Nut-Free” Label Examples

1. Ripple

The yogurt brand Ripple I purchased at Kroger while looking for dairy-free yogurt alternatives. Even though I’m plenty happy with the brand ‘So Delicious Dairy Free’ yogurt products with my peanut-allergy, I was excited to see a “nut-free” yogurt on the shelf at the grocery and wanted to give it a try.

The “nut-free” label on the on the front of the yogurt container caught my attention. I checked the ingredient list to make sure my allergen (peanuts) wasn’t listed, and I bought it. When i got home, I did the same again and took a bite. To be honest, it tasted gross and chalky, which led me to check the ingredients list again, wondering what was in it. That is when noticed it was made in a facility with others nuts (!!!), despite it saying “nut-free” on the front. Here are photos I took of the labeling at home:

This mis-match of information was definitely something I should’ve noticed in hindsight, but I wanted to share my true experience because I felt misguided since it said “nut-free” and at the time, years ago, I didn’t know a claim could be made like this if it wasn’t from a certified allergen-free facility. I inquired with the company Ripple and learned it was not made in a facility with peanuts, only some tree-nuts, but still, it is hypocritical for them to be able to label it “nut-free” and then state “made in a facility that contains nuts” and for it to possibly cross-contact contain traces. I want to believe I typically am more cautious than this, but this proved to me that everyone makes mistakes and can overlook product labels, especially misleading ones like this by Ripple.

Steve’s Ice Cream

The below image is a misleading label of the brand Steve’s Ice Cream. You’ll see it states “nut-free” and then “manufactured in a facility that also processes peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and dairy-based ingredients” on the same product. Since there is no definition or requirements defined by the FDA an U.S. food labeling laws, “nut-free” doesn’t have a specific meaning and so it could mean anything. Due to my life-threateing peanut allergy I avoid eating products made in the same facility as my allergen, since I’m reactive to trace amounts, and my allergy is deadly, so I was once again surprised that this type of unclear labeling is allowed, but it is.

misleading-food-label-food-allergy-labeling

LiveGFree

The Aldi the brand LiveGFree was a product I initially looked at because I misread it as, “Live6Free” and thought it meant free of 6 allergens, especially because it claims “nut-free” on the box. The brand had affordable cake mixes and baked chewy bars that I was interested in, too, mainly because they looked identical to the Enjoy Life Food brand which I love, but have to admit, is expensive. One of the LiveGFree products even with shared the same baked chewy bar flavor as Enjoy Life’s same product, ‘Cocoa Loco’. Both my husband and I started placing them in our grocery cart, but as I reached for a second box I saw there were ‘PB&J Bites” by the same brand sitting on the same shelf. This made me wary, and I began wondering if the some of their products were made in separate facility as allergens and got out my phone to see if LiveGFree had a website FAQ I could reference.

I decided to take photos and send them an email before buying anything, because I didn’t see an FAQ on their site that explained the food allergen situation in full. You can read their vague statement on the Aldi FAQs page, but really it doesn’t tell you anything since they say that they don’t label for ‘may contain’ or disclose what allergens are in the facility, because they’re complying with the FDA which doesn’t require them to be transparent about ingredients and top allergens in facilities. I asked the brand over email if they use peanuts in the facility of all items, and never heard back. Since the company goal is primarily to be gluten-free, I’ve found many companies like to slap a “nut-free” label on things that actually just do not actually CONTAIN nuts as an intended ingredient, but may contain them in trace amounts, which are enough for many people with food allergies to have a life-threatening allergic reaction. None of the LiveGFree products I saw had any ‘may contain’ statements or ‘made in a facility with _____” statement, you can look below at the product images.

The below photo on the right is an example of what their product boxes looked like on items that did notcontain nuts in the ingredients label, but that also didn’t specify if they ‘may contain’ or ‘in a shared facility/shared equipment with nuts’, etc. I inquired via email a second time on this, and never heard back from the brand on clarification around their “nut-free” label and what it means. Therefore, I’ve never tried their products.

Plnt

Plant by V is the Vitamin Shoppe’s brand. As of this post, it is labeled “nut-free” and even goes as far on their website and labels to say it’s “free of common food allergies”. I see this a lot on products when shopping and in this case, they are only meaning it isn’t present in the “ingredients list” on purpose, and not anything more than that, so it could be on shared equipment and in the same facility and contain trace amounts which is enough for many with food allergies to have a life-threatening allergic reaction.

I emailed Plnt by V about their product and learned that at the time, their product is tested for allergens, but they did not know if the product was made in a facility with peanuts offhand. The customer service contact said they would have to reach out and inquire internally and get back to me, and they never did.

This isn’t the absolute worst answer, I will give them that, but it would be nice if they knew more about allergens in the facility, since they’re ensuring the allergy community that it’s “free of common food allergies” on their label. Even though they test for some top allergens, I still would like to know what they test for specifically, and if the allergens are present in the facility, for cross-contact reasons. I would assume if a product can say it is “free of common allergens” that they know this 5000% and can guarantee it, but this level of reassurance simply isn’t true. For example, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream tests their products for trace amounts, but I don’t feel it’s worth the risk since peanut products are on shared equipment as all their products and I’ve had reactions to products that are tested but on shared equipment as peanuts. It makes me wonder how often the product is tested, and so on, because maybe there is no allergen on the small area they test but other areas there is, it’s entirely plausible and actually is how it must be based on the number of allergic reactions I’ve had to products that are tested for allergens. Due to this, I don’t personally want to take the risk of eating food on shared equipment as peanuts, since it’s a life-threatening decision and doesn’t feel worth it to me.

So as you can assume I decided to not chance this protein powder. Instead, after much investigating and contacting brands, I found Purely Inspired Protein Powder and I buy it at Kroger. It is clearly labeled with the food allergens in the facility, and states what is on shared equipment, which is a great and transparent food labeling practice, and gives consumers the ability to make educated choices on what they’re ingesting. Reminder: I am peanut allergic only, so this product is made on shared equipment as tree nuts, and also labels can change and so can the facility, so please check for yourself on all products before consuming.

Improving FDA Labeling Laws Will Save Lives

I don’t think it is too much to ask to know what top 9 allergens are present in a food manufacturing facility, because while something may not be added intentionally, it may be present unintentionally due to shared facility and equipment production, packing lines, and the hundreds of ways cross-contact can occur on a daily basis. I hope it becomes required by law with repercussions that food companies are required to disclose to consumers if and what top 9 allergens are present in a facility. I urge those in the food allergy community to eat based on what you’ve researched and only eat what you feel comfortable with. Everyone has different opinions, food allergies, and tolerances- we all fall someplace on the vast food allergy spectrum, so it’s important to do your own research.

Let Food Companies Know What They’re Doing Well, And Where They’re Falling Short

I like to bring it to food companies/corporations attention when they are misleading their customer base on ingredient labels and when marketing their food products, because when it comes to food allergies, it’s causing a massive risk for those eating their products. I try to always email them either immediately, or keep a running list for when I have the energy, so that way my experience and opinion is in writing and can be escalated along the company pipeline easier.

When I find safe products (for me) that are made in a peanut-free facility, and following helpful and transparent labeling practices, if they don’t already list this on their site in an FAQs section or have it listed on the label the allergens in the facility, I will let them know how appreciative I am that they release information and also ask them to add it to an FAQ on their website so more people can consume their product potentially. This doesn’t mean there will be any required oversight by the FDA of these claims, though, so that’s why laws and policies need to be put into place to ensure this safety for consumers. I can speak to my own experience here, because in my family and for myself, it is a constant guessing game trying to determine what we trust and what we don’t in relation to my peanut allergy, and consistent and transparent labeling required by the FDA needs to happen, I know I’m not alone in this time-consuming experience trying to get the most basic information to avoid cross-contact reactions.

Write the FDA To Require A Standardized Label For Allergens Present In The Facility

I hope this post has made you skeptical of food labels, because there’s a lot out there to be on the lookout for with such limited regulations in the United States. I hope you feel empowered to write the FDA, write food companies, talk to FARE about the changes you want them to endorse and help you make happen, and write your state representatives about this to help those in your life with food allergies. Heck try passing a bill! I am currently in the process of learning how to do this without a policy or political background, because I care about people with food allergies and want them to have top allergen information to be able to make informed decisions. The truth is, right now we’re in the dark and the food companies have the upper hand and hold all the power. We all deserve to eat safely and know what we are putting in our bodies, especially if it may be deadly to you, a neighbor, a friend, or a family member.

Right now in 2022 as we’re experiencing COVID-19 still, during the pandemic in 2021 and 2022 the FDA actually relaxed their labeling laws even more due to stress on the supply chain, putting people with food allergies in even more danger. This Snack Safely article covers the details, too.

Food Allergy Email Templates

Top 9 Allergen Ingredient Labeling – Good

“Hello, I wanted to let you know I greatly appreciate your transparent food labeling around allergens. I have a peanut allergy and appreciated the information regarding what top allergens are in the facility- please keep up the great work! It’s making a difference! I’;’d be happy to leave a positive review if you ever need one, as I enjoy your product. Thanks!”

Top 9 Allergen Ingredient Labeling – Bad

“Hello, I found your product and wanted to reach out because it’s misleading to consumers purchasing it due to ____insert reason here____. Please pass this along to a manager at the company, as people with life-threatening food allergies may consume your product misunderstanding what ___xyz____ means.”

Inquiring On If My Allergen Is In The Facility

“Hello, I have a life-threatening peanut allergy, do you use peanut ingredients in your facility such as peanut oil, peanut butter, or peanut ingredients of any kind?”

If you want to give more info, you can add on, “I avoid products made in the same facility with peanut ingredients. Thank you.”

Like this content? Subscribe to get alerts when a new food allergy blog post publishes & stay in the know!

4 comments

  1. These are the same exact frustrations that we have in the Celiac community, and it’s outrageous that these “ingredient-free” claims are marketing ploys. To normal people, maybe it’s OK to have some cross-com because it doesn’t affect their health, but to people like us (I have both Celiac and a wheat allergy), it’s a serious cause for concern. It’s incredibly frustrating and I’m always on edge about trying new foods because of it.

    Like

    • I feel the exact same! It’s so frustrating thinking something is safe and then discovering it isn’t later on. I hope that labeling laws get brought up to speed soon. I know it isn’t a top priority, but it doesn’t mean we can’t call for new action and try to make it one!

      Like

  2. EXCELLENT ADVICE AND WARNING.. IT TAKES TIME TO INVESTIGATE THE SAFETY OF OUR FOODS BUT WORTH IT! IT IS ESPECIALLY CONCERNING AND SINCE FOOD ALLERGIES IS BECOMING A NORM IN SOCIETY WE MUST THINK ABOUT HOW THESE PRODUCTS AFFECT US PERSONALLY AND FOR THOSE AROUND US.THANKS SO MUCH FOR CARING!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s