Guess You Can't Trust Food Labels Now

Coke (with spooky effect) | Photo: JAK Moore/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Despite what recent fear-inducing posts of mine suggest, I'm generally not someone who overly freaks out about what's in my food. Call it a combination of growing up in the Chicago suburbs, a dash of good ol' fashioned willful ignorance, and seeing the Jim Jupiter episode of Married with Children at a formative age. My own stance of voting Yes on Prop 37 -- the failed ballot proposition that would have forced food producers in California to make known whether or not they utilize GMOs -- was less about a specific worry, and more that it seems wrong to withhold information from the public. In other words, while I wanted more labeling, chances are I wasn't going to look at them too often.

Turns out, that may be for the best.

There's a not-so-fun report out from ABC News that suggests food labels have a ways to go before being considered "completely accurate."

The big worry with these mislabeled foods is a clear one: The possibility of people being exposed to allergens. The story used to give the article some human interest flavor is that of Nicholas Vanech, an 18-year-old with a tree nut allergy. After munching down on some candy that "may contain peanuts," an okay food for someone with a tree nut allergy, Vanech went into anaphylactic shock, making his throat and tongue swell up, the nightmare scenario for allergic reactions. When his mom called the food manufacturer to see if their product may actually, in fact, contain some tree nuts, they responded something along the lines of, "Oh, yeah. Probably. We keep our tree nuts right near the peanuts."

A case of simple negligence that could have ended up in someone's death. But then ABC drops the bombshell:

That was nearly a decade ago.

It's that cross-contamination that's still the big problem today. According to the report:

The Food and Drug Administration and manufacturers have issued 20 recalls in the last 60 days for undeclared allergens in food products, including Chicken of the Sea tuna, which had undeclared soy; two kinds of Wegmans brownie mix with undeclared milk; and two kinds of ice cream with undeclared pecans, according to FDA records.

An ABC News analysis found more than 400 recalls for undeclared allergens in food reported to the FDA since March 2009. More than 140 of them were for desserts and snack foods, like cookies, candy and ice cream. Repeat brand recalls were often from grocery stores, such as Kroger, Publix, Whole Foods Market and Wegmans.

So, if you're someone with a terribly debilitating allergy who's been instructed to read labels carefully before ingesting anything, what do you do if you can't trust them?

Among the advice in the article is simply speaking up and being open about your own allergies. This means asking questions often and with diligence. While it's a good sentiment, the problem with that is where most of the foods that have been contaminated reside: grocery stores. How can someone expect a clerk or even a store manager to know the ins-and-outs of every product in the various aisles?

What the article doesn't suggest, but what makes perfect sense, is going independent for all of your food needs. Do your shopping at farmers' markets where you can speak directly the owners, or specialty stores where they know the history of the products they're selling. And if they don't, at least they can get you in contact with those who would.

So that's the good news to be left with. While it's scary being unable to trust food labels, that just means we're all going to have to be a bit more aware of just where our food comes from. Which is, when all's said and done, simply another check in the column against factory farms and processed food.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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