Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Food Allergy Vigilantism

I recently joined Twitter. I was disturbed the other day to see a whole series of posts targeting a local bakery that apparently had a "nut free" sign, yet served cookies with M&Ms.

I'm not saying restaurants should declare themselves nut-free if they're not. However, in this particular case, the Tweeter targeting the restaurant had not even spoken with the owners. She had emailed them once without response and decided to take her case to the Twitterverse and blogworld. Hey, she might have saved a kid from a reaction, so no harm done, right? Except to the restaurant's reputation...the same restaurant that was trying to accommodate us (even if doing it badly).

Another incident from this week. one of the boards (don't remember which) posted a picture of the new Smarties candy label. Instead of just the regular ingredients statement, there's also now a statement on the bag about what the candy does NOT contain.

Half a dozen moms immediately piled on with comments like "I would never feed my child all those artificial colors!" Sort of misses the point.

So maybe I'm oversensitive. I think we've established by now that I'm a slacker mom when it comes to this stuff. Before my son was born, I embraced formula, harsh cleaning products, non-organic foods, Big Agra and just about anything else killing our planet and the life on it. I was blissfully unaware.

But still. Are food manufacturers really the enemy? Especially the ones who are actually trying?

Over the years, there have been a couple of food producers who have really been hung out to dry by our community. The two that immediately come to mind for me are Subway and McDonalds. A brief recap for those of you who are new to FA...

In 2006, Emily Vonder Meulen had a fatal food-allergy reaction after eating at a local Subway. The cause of the reaction was never determined. It may have been cross-contamination from the peanut-butter cookies; Emily's parents have since theorized that it may also have been a suddenly-apparent cross reaction to the soy in the chicken sandwich (the sandwich had no known peanut ingredients).

Today, Subway is one of the best, most allergy-aware restaurants my son eats at. The cookies and bread are baked on different pans. Every line worker will change gloves if asked. Yet, I am still seeing posts from parents with no awareness of the original incident who have heard "from the friend of the nephew of my neighbor's postman" that Subway is bad for food-allergic people.

McDonald's, the second company that's gotten hammered, at least brought the situation on themselves. Before the 2004 Food Allergy Labeling Consumer Protection Act (FALPCA), consumers such as my family were left guessing or calling about natural flavorings in foods. After the passage of the act, manufacturers were required to disclose food flavorings and additives derived from the Top 8. (Hallelujah!)

However, we were shocked to find McDonald's suddenly disclosing the milk origin of the flavoring in their French fries. To add insult to injury, the en vogue theory at the time was that total avoidance was the best way to outgrow a food allergy. Was it possible that us giving our son McDonald's fries all those years had made his allergy persistent, even though he showed no reaction?

We fired off an angry letter. McDonald's responded that, although the flavoring started with hydrolized milk protein, by the time they were done with it they were confident the flavoring no longer contained enough protein to cause a food allergy reaction. We thought it through, shrugged, and continued giving the fries.

So, you see, we're slackers again. I just don't have that pristine approach to food allergies, or foods in general. I won't give my son foods with a "may contain" peanut label. But, in the case of McDonald's, their people swear the food DOESN'T contain the protein, despite the ingredients statement. It's akin to labeling anything with soybean oil as "soy", even though the vast majority of people with soy allergy can tolerate the amount of soy protein left in oil.

Like Subway, McDonald's is one of the companies we really trust for food awareness. I was not happy that they did not disclose ingredients, but the bottom line was that they were right  even my very-sensitive-at-the-time son could tolerate the fries.

There are a lot of sloppy manufacturers out there, food companies that really don't dedicate themselves to the food-allergic community. I just wish we would stop vilifying the companies who truly do make the effort.

Yes, Smarties contain crap. But that doesn't bother me, as long as they don't contain peanuts.


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