Food labels leave off full story for allergy sufferers

WASHINGTON – Peanut allergies are on the rise, forcing a lot of parents to diligently check food labels. But those labels do not always tell the full story.

Arlington, Va., mom Jodi Meyer learned about food labels the hard way. She baked some cookies from a Trader Joe’s mix that made no mention of peanuts on the label.

“I gave one to all of us,” she says, including her 2-year-old son, Finnegan.

Within minutes, the toddler’s face broke out in hives.

A bit of sleuthing and a call to the Trader Joe’s hotline followed. Meyer says she discovered the cookie mix was manufactured in a plant that also makes products with peanuts.

A representative for the national grocery company told Meyer that food products containing nuts are made on the machinery half of the time. Then, that machine is completely cleaned before peanut-free products are made.

Meyer says the explanation was very confusing.

“I can know how many calories and how much fat is in something, or if there are enough vitamins in it for my kids. I can get all that information, but I can’t tell if it is something that is going to potentially kill my son,” she says.

Dr. Hemant Sharma, director of the Food Allergy Program at the Children’s National Health System, says parents have every right to be concerned about a situation similar to the one Meyer experienced.

“There is great need for better labeling, especially with regard to self- contamination,” he says.

Studies have shown a three-fold rise in the incidence of peanut allergies over the last decade or so. No one is sure what is at the root of this increase, and Sharma says a number of theories are being investigated.

But whatever the cause, he warns that any peanut allergy needs to be taken very seriously, whether the child gets a rash, or runs the risk of a life-threatening reaction, like 8-year-old Ari Packer of Olney, Md.

“I can’t touch them or eat them,” Ari says. “I stop breathing and I need an EpiPen, and the EpiPen gives medicine to my body that helps me breathe again.”

Ari’s mother, Rachel, cooks his meals from scratch, using processed foods only when the labeling is clear that there has been no cross-contamination.

Federal law requires manufacturers warn consumers on packaging when a product contains one or more of eight major allergens as ingredients. However, cross-contamination labels that say, “produced in a facility that also produces nuts,” or some sort of similar language, are purely voluntary.

“They don’t have to expose that,” says D.C.-based food attorney Mary Beth Albright. “If that is not explicitly on the box, anything goes.”

Albright says there is a huge movement among parents of kids with allergies, as well as grown-ups with allergies, themselves, for better, more detailed cross-contamination labeling.

For the time being, Albright urges those with peanut allergy concerns to rely on products that explicitly state on the packaging the food was produced in a plant that does not use nuts. She acknowledges those products are likely to be a brand that costs more.

“But at the end of the day, it is the health of your child or yourself,” Albright says.

So what are some options for parents of children who suffer from a food allergy?

Albright says if she was the mother of an allergic child, she would join grass-root organizations and press for mandatory labeling. She also advises that parents cut down on processed foods and cook as much as possible from scratch.

“If you go to the grocery store and buy your own ingredients and cook your own food, you will always know what’s in it,” Albright says. “And that is the first line of defense.”

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Editor’s Note: Jodi Meyer is the wife of WTOP’s Director of Digital Media John Meyer.

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