The Food Labeling Scam

Are food manufacturers and government officials so callous that they are actually using children as guinea pigs when it comes to food labeling?

Apparently so, according to the Chicago Tribune’s 2008 investigative report on hidden allergens in popular food products. Hidden food allergens are part of the reason that an estimated 30,000 Americans are rushed to the emergency room each year and another 150 die – most of them children.

The issue was brought to light when three-year-old Patrick Pridemore ate Wellshire Kids’ Dinosaur Shapes Chicken Bites and began having trouble breathing. His mother jabbed his leg with an epi needle and rushed him to the hospital, where, thankfully, he recovered.

Patrick has a severe allergy to wheat, and the packaging label said the product was “gluten-free” (containing no wheat, rye, or barley proteins). Mrs. Pridemore meticulously scrutinizes labels to ensure that Patrick is not exposed to gluten.

Amazingly, when she contacted Wellshire and the USDA to report Patrick’s health crisis, neither organization would test the product to confirm the presence of gluten. The Tribune then sent the chicken bites to a leading food allergy lab on two separate occasions, and both times gluten was found. But this was still not enough for the manufacturer to recall or relabel the product. Whole Foods was the only retail outlet to remove the chicken bites and two other suspected Wellshire products from its stores.

The logical question to ask now is who’s accountable for accurate food labeling? And the shocking answer is no one. Government regulators allow food companies to police themselves when it comes to package labeling and recalls. And while larger manufacturers are more diligent about testing their products for allergens, smaller companies often do no testing, or very little, because it is not required.

When products are recalled, both the manufacturer and the FDA are often lax when it comes to issuing statements and press releases to the public. And when a press release is issued, it’s often watered down to the point where the true health risks are obscured.

Even worse, the Tribune report found that nearly 50 percent of the allergy-related food recalls in the past 10 years were not disclosed to consumers – and 2,800 products were recalled.

So, where does that leave the 11 million adults and children in the U.S. who have food and digestive allergies? For all intents and purposes, pretty much fending for themselves.

And that’s where the ELL Foundation comes in. ELL (Eat, Learn, Live) is a non-profit organization that advocates for more complete and accurate food allergen labeling. Currently, it may be the best resource for consumers who depend on accurate food labeling to prevent severe allergic reactions.

If you log on to their website, you’ll find a list of current FDA recalls. You’ll also be able to check their database of food allergy incidents reported by members. This is important, because the incidents may have been ignored by the manufacturer – meaning high-risk products are still on store shelves.

ELL encourages consumersto share their mislabeling experiences by submitting a report through its website,” which is then shared with the public. (Your personal information is protected.) They also provide information on the steps to take if you have had an allergic reaction to a mislabeled food – including how to file a complaint with the FDA and the manufacturer. And if you want to have an ingredient analysis done on the suspected product allergen, ELL provides contact information for the University of Nebraska’s Food Allergy Research & Resource Program (FARRP). The service is free if an allergic reaction occurred because of a mislabeled food.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 3 million American children under the age of 18 have a food or digestive allergy – and that number is growing at an alarming rate. From the Tribune’s report, we know that we can’t sit back and wait for food manufacturers and the FDA to protect them from life-threatening allergic reactions due to mislabeling. What we can do as private citizens is get involved by helping one another avoid health disasters on websites such as ELL’s.