Food allergies are on the rise and it’s no surprise that companies touting themselves as “allergy friendly” are too. The 2009 Natural Products Expo East held in Boston, Massachusetts was a prime example.
Numbers presented at the “Gluten and Other Allergies 101 Everything You Need to Know” educational session showed an increase in sales for many categories of allergy friendly foods where non allergy food sales either stayed the same or decreased. The room itself was so packed with food retailers and manufacturers, that many had to stand or sit on the floor.
The average food allergy consumer might see this as a wonderful thing while others in the food allergy community are skeptical. The FDA currently has no definition on what allergen free is or means and labeling laws cover only what ingredients are in a product and not what ingredients that same product might come into contact with. For marketing people this is a dream, for allergy consumers it can be a nightmare.
While there is nothing wrong with making a profit, there are allergy friendly companies that put profits before people. Not a very friendly thing to do. So how does an allergy consumer make the right choices? Following are some tips are on how to weed out the profiteers from the rest.
The Gold Standard
When it comes to food manufacturing for the allergy community, the gold standard is a “dedicated facility”. While there are varying definitions on what a facility is, most agree that a facility is a closed off building or room where a product is manufactured. Dedicated means that facility is there strictly for the allergen free product or products to be made and often times packaged as well. Depending upon the product, specific allergens are not allowed into the facility. Raw ingredients are often tested and even product batches are tested for allergens. This is the only way to ensure a product is truly free from a specific allergen.
The Next Best Thing
If a company does not manufacturer their product in a dedicated facility, the next best thing would be a dedicated line. This means only the allergen free product or products are made on that line. These companies should also test their ingredients and samples of their products to ensure they are truly allergen free and not contaminated from other lines in the facility.
Coming up Last
Rounding out third place would be companies that have allergens in their facility or on their lines but have a thorough cleaning process and batch test their products and or lines. Many large manufacturers do this and their food items consistently come back free of allergens. However, allergens in a facility or on a line means that there is always a chance it can make it into a product. Proceed with caution.
Consumers with food allergies should be aware of manufacturers who have allergens in their facilities or on their lines that have a cleaning process, but do not test for allergens. Without testing there is no way to determine whether an item is truly allergen free, especially when there are allergens in the facility or on the lines to begin with.
Consumers should also be aware of companies that use a co-packer, ie: have another manufacturer make the product for them. Find out who the manufacturer is and what their facility or manufacturing practices are.
Lastly, read labels thoroughly. Remember that just because a package says peanut free or allergen free does not mean that it is. This is something that consumers have a hard time understanding.
Currently there just isn’t a law to determine what exactly peanut free means in parts per million. There could be traces of an allergen in a product from contaminated lines. This also means that allergic consumers should avoid products with any sort of warning label such as “may contains” or “processed in” among others. A study done found that some food items with those warning labels did in fact contain detectable levels of peanut protein. It’s better to err on the side of caution and be safe rather than sorry.
What About Other Allergy Companies?
There are many allergy companies and websites popping up all over the Internet. This is where things get more difficult. There are allergy friendly books, cookbooks, non food products, and informational sites. Many of the items or websites out there are truly wonderful and made with the allergic individual in mind. Yet some are made knowing the allergy industry is booming and with an eye toward profiting off the community. Following are some tips for how to tell the difference.
What is the persons connection to allergies? Is he or she an allergy sufferer, parent of an allergic child, or relative or friend of someone with allergies? If not, did or does the person consult with an allergy expert?
What is the persons connection to the allergy community? Does he or she do volunteer work with or for an allergy foundation? Is he or she active in the community offering support to those who need it?
Who Are They Really?
Who is the person/persons behind the company? Is there an About Us section on the website? Can you readily find information on the company or founder/founders of the company? Do they share their story? Are they honest or misleading? Do they stick to their story?
If you do a quick internet search do they come up and what information comes up with them?
What value do you get from the company, product, or website? Is the idea original? Is the website offering up new ideas and information or regurgitating information found from other sites or copying other products?
How is the company or website profiting? Are they a for profit charging a membership fee? Do they charge companies to be listed on their site? Do they charge companies for product reviews? Are they honest and forthcoming about how they make their money?
The Consumer’s Voice
Allergy consumers have a strong voice and a choice. Let companies know what you need and what you will and won’t tolerate. Don’t recommend or work with companies that have questionable business practices. Buy from companies that listen to you and truly put people before profits.