Wednesday, December 24, 2008

going shopping - and checking tags

The Man and I have been reading and rereading labels, and still, the number of items we returned this week was ridiculous. We returned:

  • vanilla Soy Dream (should have been 'original' flavor)
  • flaxseed with blueberries (Trader Joes, had "natural flavors")
  • Galil sun dried tomatoes in oil (contains "spices")
  • 365 organic diced tomatoes (no kosher symbol - the conventional 365 tinned tomatoes are hechshered)
and oh, embarrassingly more.

For years after we had children, grocery shopping was almost leisurely. We'd do some aisles together, some separately - I liked to do produce, the Man likes to do anything "time efficient." (a concept I still don't quite grasp) But now, with at least one if not two kids in the cart and one adult herding them along, we move at top speed.

The rule for allergy shopping is simple: even if you've bought it a squidrillion times before, always read the label. Buying two of the same item? Read both labels. The acronism is REAL: Read Each And Every Label. But for us, that's a goal - not a reality. (ahem)

So, we try to read each and every label in the store, and then it gets reread at home, as we unpack the groceries. Unless it's dinnertime, in which case we might miss some. And I try to recheck items when I pull them out of the pantry. And thank heavens, because somehow we need all three checkpoints. Labels change so quickly, making the oft-requested "safe snack" list an infuriating hazard. Nice parent/teacher/friend, wants to feed my kids things that won't make them turn blue. This is wonderful! This is something we should support! This is going to be a headache!

I was once collared by a righteously infuriated friend for exactly this reason, and yes, she was right. But what are the options? One is for me to always provide the snacks. Another, is for me to provide a list of snacks, plus their ingredients and any warning labels - these are kosher only if identical to the item in the store. A third is for me to ask people to call me from the store, and read the labels to me - each and every time. How big of a pain in the ass can this possibly be? To reduce the PIA, I should be able to offer autonomy to the people willing to take on food allergy friendliness. To ensure safety, I can't - quite. My compromise is to offer the list, check the labels, and stash food in the car, just in case.

Even when we all get it right, the manufacturers present one last wild card. The Chicago Tribune offers a database of products recalled for undisclosed food allergens. They track(ed) the top 8 allergens, plus sesame, sulfites and Yellow #5. The database was built using reports from the FDA, USDA, NY State Department of Agriculture and Markets (one of the few to test imported foods).

A great big splashy, flashy caveat emptor hangs here: the Tribune notes that only 7% of consumer reported allergic reactions lead to a recall of the food. Assuming that some percentage of reported reactions are incorrectly attributed, or crank responses, that's still a remarkably low number. In one case, a complaint was lodged regarding a dairy allergic child's reaction to a Duncan Heins cake mix. You can see here why the product wasn't recalled for some time:

"When asked by the Tribune why the recall took so long, Pinnacle Foods said it immediately had the product tested but found no milk. A few month later, the company received a second complaint of an allergic reaction to the mix. Pinnacle said it again investigated, this time finding a likely culprit overlooked in the first inquiry: some chocolate chips."see rest of text here

Here's what gave me pause:

"The Tribune investigation found that 187 companies since 1998 have had more than one recall for hidden allergens. ... According to the Tribune investigation, half of all recalls for hidden allergens involve undeclared milk or egg. ... The Tribune investigation found that on average, five products are recalled each week for undeclared allergens. of all food recalled for hidden allergens involves cookies, candy, ice cream or snacks."


The full article is here but I think the lesson is simple: call the company yourself and ask, always. And avoid companies with bad track records, either in reviewing ingredients and cross-contamination information with you, or with recalls. When Silk had their recall for dairy contamination, I called the company and asked for updates. They were unable to tell me either where the dairy had come from, nor demonstrate a level of response that reassured me. Therefore, we avoid Silk products until our allergy nutritionist tells us otherwise.

And in general, we look for companies that have strong allergy labelling practices where cross-contamination labelling is concerned. A serious hat tip to the Nut-Free Mom, who points out that imported foods are even more problematic. They may not have reliable allergy labelling, and outside of New York, there isn't an agency that tests imports.

My many one-sided conversations with Israeli manufacturers have, alas, taught me this. But I heartily recommend Manishewitz, as a company who has at least one educated grandmother of a food allergic child...answering the customer service line. After an infuriating 45 minutes talking to someone at Osem, I called Manishewitz and braced myself. This grandmother lectured me on remembering to ask about cross-contamination, and I cheered.


I bin tagged!

So, since I think I did the 7 facts meme before - no, wait, that was a tag from the evidently patient Aidel Maidel. I'll go finish that, shall I? Meanwhile, here's my nearest book, opened to page 56, and sentences 2-5 are:

"This book has everything I love: early instrumentation, natural history, art..."

"But have you been thinking about what we discussed?" Sandy asked.

"Daddy," she said. "You may have noticed by now - I don't want to be a doctor."

-Intuition, by Allegra Goodman

(an excellent book, by the way, and I'm not just saying that because her son makes a brisket worth schlepping for.)

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