Podcast Addresses Allergen Labels

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Regular readers of this column know that I frequently write about topics discussed on a food safety podcast called Risky or Not? It is produced by two Extension Food Safety Specialists, our own Dr. Ben Chapman from NC State Extension and Dr. Don Schaffner, a specialist from Rutgers in New Jersey. The podcast is free and available for anyone who wants to listen and learn.

Each episode is about 10 minutes long and there are usually three each week. In each podcast, Drs. Chapman and Schaffner address one food safety topic, usually, a question asked by a listener. Typically, the question is related to food, cooking, or food preservation. They look at research and science and give their rationale for deciding if it is risky or not.

The topic of episode #263 from last February addressed the topic: Eating Foods Labeled as “Made in a Facility” With a Food to Which You Are Allergic. I think we’re all familiar with these labels on food. They usually say something like “Packed in a facility that processes peanuts, nuts, milk products, soy protein, wheat, and eggs.” The listed foods vary by product and manufacturer.

The top nine allergens are peanuts, tree nuts, milk, soy, wheat, shellfish, eggs, seafood, and sesame. These foods account for about 90% of all food allergies in the United States. If processed food contains one of these, it must be listed on the label. Sesame is new to this list and will be required to be identified on labels beginning next year.

This “made in a facility” labeling is called Precautionary Allergen Labeling (PAL). Putting PAL on a product is voluntary for manufacturers. They are required to list if one of the top nine allergens is in their products, but listing that the food is processed in a facility that also processes potential allergens is voluntary. So, this leads back to the Risky or Not question…..how risky is it to eat one of these products that were “made in a facility” that produces food to which you are allergic?

To start this discussion, the Professors looked at a research study published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunity in 2016. The study looked at these precautionary (PAL) labels. The study’s goal was to see how much people in the US and Canada knew about these labels and if they affected the purchasing habits of food-allergic consumers.

Their results showed that the buying habits varied based on the PAL wording. Of the 5634 people surveyed, only 11% said they purchased food that had a label that said the product “may contain” a specific allergen. But 40% purchased food that used the “manufactured in a facility that also processes” label. The overall conclusion was that people don’t understand PAL and improved awareness and guidelines are needed to help food-allergic consumers purchase foods.

Where do the professors stand on this topic?

Both said they felt eating a product manufactured in a facility that also processes food to which you are allergic is RISKY. While they both agree that the probability is small, the consequences are very high and could be deadly for someone with an allergy.

The concern is called “cross-contact.” This happens with an allergen has come in contact with other foods. It is not easy to keep allergens from moving throughout a facility. So, manufacturers can’t “guarantee” that foods don’t come in contact with each other.

Of course, the details are in the discussion. If this is a topic you’re interested in learning more about, I’d encourage you to listen to the whole podcast. You can also sign up to learn when they post new topics. Recent programs have included Corn Water (#355), Cooking Chicken in a Hotel Coffee Pot (#353), and Kissing a Bird (#351). Spoiler alert: they considered all of these RISKY.

Cheryle Syracuse wrote this article and more similar ones for the Family and Consumer Sciences Column in the Brunswick Beacon. Syracuse is an FCS team member and can be reached at N.C. Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, 910.253.2610 or by email at cheryle_syracuse@ncsu.edu.