What’s your label comfort level?

2017 Jul 16th

As an allergy mom, I belong to many allergy groups on social media. For the most part, they are extremely helpful and supportive. However, one issue seems to spark a debate in many groups - comfort levels with labelling. I don’t mean actual labelling laws themselves, but the trust level by a family regarding the label.

Many families trust the label, they have always gone by what the label says and if it does not list their allergen, they are okay with that product. There are others who call companies to ensure that the item was made in a facility that is free of their allergen(s). There are also a slew of others in the middle who may be okay with shared facilities but not shared lines, or who don’t call unless the company doesn’t use may contain statements, or who only call companies for high risk items like desserts.

My family falls into one of the far ends of the spectrum. I call companies - if the package does not say “made in a peanut free facility”, I don’t by it until I can research further. Sometimes that research is quick, because some manufacturers have great information on their websites regarding their allergen polices and facilities. However, sometimes, it can take multiple emails and phone calls to get to get a straight answer. By straight answer, I mean that the company doesn’t provide a canned allergy policy response stating that they follow Health Canada and CFIA regulations. I personally hate that response. I always ask very specific questions and don’t feel that they value their customers when they cannot simply answer the question as asked. Often, those responses make me not want to purchase from that company.

Below, I have listed my reasons for the way my family feels about labels. Your family may agree or disagree and that is perfectly okay. My family may be different from yours regarding this train of thought, but I’m sure there are other things we would likely agree on, life would be quite boring if we all agreed all the time. Please remember that the list below is my list. There is no right or wrong, only what is right for each family. Comfort levels can vary significantly and we must all do what we feel is right for our own family.

So, why do I call? 

  1. My son is enrolled in a peanut patch trial, through which I have learned the amount of peanut he can ingest before reacting and what is needed to treat that level of reaction - the amount he can ingest is minimal and the treatment isn’t just one epipen. I don’t trust manufacturers - they can make errors, either human or equipment errors and although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has a very diligent recall system for products that slip through, it is my job to protect my child. I have a very high anxiety level, which is likely one of the reasons that I do things this way.
  2. I don’t trust the peanut free logo. That logo is not regulated and can mean different things to different companies. It doesn’t explicitly mean that the facility or production lines are peanut free, it only means that the product doesn’t have peanuts in it. I really love seeing the “made in a peanut free facility” logo! My son is peanut allergic only, so unlike many who also have to look for tree nut labelling, I do not. I do avoid items that actually contain tree nuts, unless I can confirm they are peanut free tree nuts, such as Royal Nuts or Wonderful brand almonds or pistachios. For those that are tree nut allergic, that peanut free logo can cause frustration - so many people think that it means nut-free, when in fact it does not and quite often the item is actually cross contaminated with tree nuts.
  3. I also don’t trust the label when it does not have a may contain statement, unless I have previously contacted the company. May contain statements are not mandatory and a manufacturer can use shared production lines and not use that statement. As long as the allergen is not an actual ingredient in the product, the manufacturer has no regulated obligation to mention if they used shared lines or facilities.
  4. Companies also share facilities, so although they don’t make any products with peanuts, another company who shares their facility may. I purchased and used a pasta sauce previously (not anymore) and realized that I had only checked their website - they didn’t make anything with nuts at all, so I assumed their facility was peanut free. I contacted them to verify and discovered that they run peanut butter on the same production line as the pasta sauce! They explained that they clean the lines, but I know how oily and gooey and pasty peanut butter can be. That is way out of our comfort zone. I will not make that mistake again. Company cleaning procedures can also vary, so one may complete an extensive procedure and completely disassemble a production line whereas others may run some sort of cleaning solution through. Many people have said “well your son ate it and he’s fine” and that’s true, but you are only safe until you’re not and that pasta sauce isn’t worth it to me when it is so easy to find one that is made in a peanut free facility.

This is our norm and that is ok with us. Your norm may be reading labels and that is ok too. Instead of debating which one is “right” we should simply share what we know so that other families can find their own comfort zone.