Many labels don't list allergens

Food traces could be harmful



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CHICAGO -- Some supermarkets, gourmet shops and bakeries routinely sell mislabeled products that pose a danger to children with food allergies, according to Chicago Tribune testing and a comprehensive check of grocery aisles.

In one of the nation's largest examinations of undisclosed ingredients in food, the Tribune reviewed thousands of items at 60 locations in or near Chicago, finding dozens of products obviously mislabeled. The newspaper also conducted 50 laboratory tests -- more than the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration combined over the last several years -- to determine precise ingredients.

In the end, the newspaper identified 117 products that appear to violate federal food labeling laws. Here is what the examination found:

No. 1: Label errors abound

Eight foods -- milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish -- account for 90% of food allergies. That's why federal law requires ingredient labels to disclose them.

Yet the Tribune found numerous examples of those ingredients not being declared. The newspaper also found more than a dozen products with incomplete labels that, for example, simply list "flour" as an ingredient. If an item contains, say, wheat flour, the packaging must say so. Likewise, if a label discloses "butter," it must also state "milk."

When the Tribune alerted manufacturers of the incomplete labels, several said they would remove the products from shelves or amend labels.

Seattle-based Theo Chocolate said it planned a national recall of its Caramel Collection candy after the newspaper informed the company that its labels disclosed "organic butter" but not milk. The company said 5,000 individual packages, sold at the Whole Foods Market grocery chain, would be recalled shortly.

Not all companies were quick to act.

Testing found Kodiak Cakes' Big Bear Brownies mix contained milk, which is not disclosed on the label. Joel Clark, president of Baker Mills, the Salt Lake City company that makes the mix, said the amount found -- 940 parts per million -- was too small to warrant a recall.

In fact, federal law states that all ingredients -- including allergens -- must be disclosed on labels. Moreover, experts believe there is no safe level of allergens for people sensitive to them.

No. 2: Technically, some labels confuse

Ingredient statements are not supposed to use technical terms for common allergens, such as "durum semolina" for wheat or "whey" for milk. But the Tribune found a dozen examples of that violation.

At several retail outlets, the Tribune found Lund's Swedish Pancake Mix that listed "whey powder" without listing milk. Lab results showed the mix contained 5,000 parts per million of milk.

Jewel-Osco spokesman Miguel Alba said the chain would pull the pancake mix from 185 stores in the Midwest. The suchain also said it would pull Violet Crumble bars from the same stores after the Tribune found the labels disclosed "whey powder" but not milk.

Several other companies said they would pull products or change labels after the newspaper found labels listing "durum semolina" or "spelt" without noting that means wheat.

No. 3: Oats are often tainted with wheat

The Tribune tested six brands of oat cereal, and all had hidden gluten, most likely traces of wheat or barley.

Experts say it is difficult to keep wheat out of oats because farmers often grow the crops side by side.

None of the six oatmeal products tested by the Tribune clearly warned consumers about the possibility of wheat, a major allergen.

But after the Tribune informed New York-based HappyFamily that its HappyBellies Oatmeal Cereal contained gluten, Chief Operating Officer Jessica Rolph said she would relabel the product.

The oats that tested highest for gluten were made by the Quaker Oats Co. Spokeswoman Candace Mueller said Quaker is aware that cross-contamination can occur in its oats, but "we are confident that our labels are accurate and our products are safe."

No. 4: Imports are iffy

Parents should know that imports are often unchecked and mislabeled.

The Tribune found imports with incomplete labels or ingredients listed in other languages -- each a violation of the law.

Among the examples: Valencianos Artisanal Crackers, manufactured in Spain and sold at Whole Foods.

The distributor, Forever Cheese of Long Island City, N.Y., initially maintained that the rules didn't apply to the firm because it imports only a small volume of the crackers.

But the FDA said the rules do apply, regardless of how much or how little is imported. Whole Foods said it would pull the Valencianos crackers from shelves nationwide.

Over the last 10 years, at least 1 in 7 recalls for undeclared allergens by the FDA and USDA involved imported food, a Tribune database shows. Most such products were from China, where, experts say, there are few rules regarding labeling.

"If I had a food allergy, I wouldn't eat imported foods," said Dan Rice, director of the New York State Food Laboratory.

No. 5: Dangers of unlabeled food

Parents should not guess at the ingredients in unlabeled food; common allergens can exist in unlikely products.

Retail food made to order, such as deli sandwiches, or single items in bins, such as bagels, do not need labels. But packaged foods must have labels.



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