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Allergen-based food contamination -- and what we're told

November 24, 2008 |  5:17 pm

The Food and Drug Administration today announced the recalls of Vegan Rella Cheddar Block and Wegmans Italian Classics Seasoned Tomato Sauce. A couple of weeks ago, the agency called attention to the recall of muffin tops from Seattle's Favorite Gourmet Cookies & Dessert Co. All the actions were because of undeclared milk products.

Those are just a few recent instances of unlisted allergens making their way into food products. And they're just a few of which we've been warned.

The Chicago Tribune took a look at the larger issue. The first story, Children at risk in food roulette, begins:

American children with food allergies are suffering life-threatening -- and completely avoidable -- reactions because manufacturers mislabel their products and regulators fail to police store shelves, a Tribune investigation has found.

In effect, children are used as guinea pigs, with the government and industry often taking steps to properly label a product only after a child has been harmed.

The Tribune investigation revealed that the government rarely inspects food to find problems and doesn't punish companies that repeatedly violate labeling laws.

A second story, A recipe for disaster, shows how Whole Foods dealt with a problem chocolate bar:

Whole Foods has long trumpeted its premium chocolate bars for being made the old-fashioned way, in Switzerland.

But two years ago it added another manufacturing claim to the product's labels -- one that would appeal to millions of Americans who suffer from potentially life-threatening food allergies.

"Good manufacturing practices," the labels stated, were "used to segregate" potential allergens such as tree nuts, soy or milk.

The labels were informative, comforting and also untrue.

Accompanying the package is a custom database. The directions state: "Search all allergy-related food recalls from the last 10 years by product, allergen, recalling firm, kind of food or by using multiple fields."

The FDA does offer information about the recalls mentioned above and others on its site. The system may not be perfect, but it allows consumers to sign up for e-mail updates.

Take what warning you can get.

-- Tami Dennis