Several weeks ago, a friend bought a box of cereal. Three hours later, she was in a hospital emergency room. This friend—we’ll call her Alice—has a severe nut allergy, and there were trace amounts in the cereal. To complicate matters further, Alice was pregnant.
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Alice has dealt with her allergies all her life. She is a conscientious reader of ingredient labels; she calls restaurants to verify their allergen policies; she brown bags every single workplace luncheon or professional development conference. Her trip to the hospital happened because the breakfast cereal manufacturer had changed its recipe without advertising that fact on the packaging. “I have been buying that cereal for years,” said Alice. “It was on my list of foods I could trust.”
The story has a happy ending, and Alice was able to return home from the hospital later that day. But the real issue here is that this incident never should have happened in the first place.
From a legal perspective, the manufacturer is without fault. The ingredient list was changed to include the allergens. From a broader public service perspective, however, the company made a mistake; it did not update its packaging to call attention to this changed formula. “New and Improved” or “Now Made Even Better” would have been enough to prompt Alice to read the ingredient list and would have kept her out of the emergency room.
With the number of people with food allergies and the number of recalls due to undeclared allergens increasing, a company’s culture in terms of how it handles allergens has taken on a whole new importance.
According to The Peanut Allergy Answer Book, the first reference to a nut allergy occurred in 1920. Sesame came onto the scene as an allergen in 1950. Between 1999 and 2004, the number of American children suffering from life-threatening peanut allergies doubled.
In Canada, 10 products are on the priority allergen list, up from six in the past 15 years. This summer, mustard will be added, increasing the total to 11. Clearly, allergen prioritization is on the rise. There is no reason to assume that this trend will slow down. In fact, every sign points to the opposite. As part of the Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in January 2011, the FDA is required to develop a voluntary allergen management program. As a result, companies may soon find themselves challenged to prove the fitness of their own programs and to demonstrate continued improvement.
Many people have a difficult time believing that a trace amount of milk powder or soy flour in a product can be life threatening. They think the industry has gone overboard in dealing with allergens.
The Allergen Epidemic
Recent numbers show that the allergen issue is a sizeable concern:
- According to the FDA, food allergies affect about 2% of the U.S. adult population and 5% of children.
- FDA figures also report that anaphylaxis due to allergic reactions to food results in 30,000 emergency room visits, 2,000 hospitalizations, and 150 deaths each year.
- Various sources estimate that 30% to 50% of recalls result from undeclared allergens.
There are no figures available on the cost of recalls to the food processing industry, but if we assume even a very conservative $100,000 per recall (this includes the cost of product, lost sales, administrative and marketing costs, and damage to brand image), the total could be staggering.
It’s important to remember that allergens are only a problem when they exist in a food product but are not listed on the label. This can happen in a number of different ways, including mislabeled packaging, undeclared allergens in raw materials, and cross-contamination during the production process.