Understanding Food Labels
While this website is easy to use, it is important for you to understand the different types of food labels. If you understand these differences, you will get a lot more value from the information posted here.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) requires that any food products (to be sold in the United States and manufactured after January 2006) have a statement on the label that lists any ingredients that are derived from the eight major allergens (Milk, Eggs, Fish, Crustacean Shellfish, Tree Nuts, Peanuts, Wheat & Soybeans). This statement will be found on the nutritional label. It will be near the list of ingredients or even within the list of ingredients. While many companies specifically use the word, “CONTAINS” separately from the list of ingredients to warn that an allergen is in the food, it is not required, as long as the ingredient is listed as an ingredient. If the allergen is an ingredient that is only listed in the ingredient list, there will parenthesis around the (allergen) in the list. See examples below.
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FALCPA only applies to the above eight major allergens that are ingredients in a food product. However, the laws in the United States do not require such a warning to be placed on food products that may have been accidentally cross-contaminated with an allergen.
Warning the public of the possibility of cross-contamination with an allergen is completely voluntary for food manufacturers. Some food manufacturers choose to use “Advisory Labeling” to warn about potential cross-contamination issues. Unfortunately, many other food manufacturers choose not to use “Advisory Labeling”. This can cause great confusion when reading food labels.
The simplest labels to read are those with “Advisory Labeling” that provide a warning about potential cross-contamination. In these situations, you will clearly know about the possibility of cross-contamination with allergens and can make an educated decision as to whether the product is safe for your allergic person.
The difficulties in reading and understanding food labels occur with products that do not have any “Advisory Labeling” warning about possible cross-contamination with allergens. In these situations, the label does not provide you with enough information to determine if the food is safe for your allergic person. The lack of “Advisory Labeling” could mean different things:
- It could mean that the food manufacturer has a policy of using “Advisory Labeling” to warn about possible cross-contamination with allergens and this particular product has no risk of cross-contamination.
- It could mean that the food company does not use “Advisory Labeling” and this particular product has no risk of cross-contamination.
- It could mean that this specific product is at risk for cross-contamination with allergens, but the food manufacturer chooses not to use “Advisory Labeling” to warn the public of that risk.
This begs the question – If a food product does not have any “Advisory Label” regarding possible cross-contamination, can you really trust that label to decide if that food is safe for your allergic person? You Cannot!
The only way that you can know if you can trust that label is to know that food manufacturer’s policy regarding “Advisory Labeling”.
- Does the food manufacturer have a policy to label for possible cross-contamination with allergens?
- Does the food manufacturer choose not to label for possible cross-contamination with allergens?
- If the food manufacturer does have a policy to label, does that policy apply to all divisions of their company and/or all of the products that they manufacture?
Without knowing the answers to these questions, you cannot know if a product’s label is trustworthy or untrustworthy.
It is also important for you to understand the language frequently used on product labels that pertain to allergens.
If the product label uses the word “CONTAINS”, the allergen is in the product and was meant to be in the product. See examples below.
If the product label does has an advisory warning, food manufacturers can use any words that they choose – “MAY CONTAIN…”, MANUFACTURED IN A FACILITY…”, “MANUFACTURED IN A PLANT…”, “MAY BE CROSS CONTAMINATED WITH …” or anything else the company wants it to say. Such a statement is a warning that the product MAY contain the allergen due to cross-contamination. See examples below of different types of advisory warning labels that I have found.
You must always read the labels carefully! The difference between “contains”, or any form of an “advisory labeling” statement, can easily be confused if the two are listed one directly below the other. See examples below.
There are other issues that arise that you should be aware of when reading labels.
- Sometimes you will find packages that have no labeling at all and state “not labeled for individual sale”. These products should not be for sale in any store in the United States. These types of products are small packages of food that are sold in bulk in larger bags. The labeling is only on the large bag that the smaller items came in. If you cannot check the label on the large bag, you will not know what is in the food.
- There are times that food manufacturers will change the “recipe” or “formula” for a product depending upon where in the country it is being sold or for a product that comes in a variety of sizes. For example, a mini sized chocolate bar may have different ingredients in it than the full sized version of the same chocolate bar. Different sized products may also be produced on different equipment. Do not assume anything. Always read the labels carefully.
- Every food manufacturer deals with its labeling policy a bit differently. Some may label if an allergen was used on the same “line” as the product was made on and others may label if an allergen is used anywhere in the same “plant” that the product was made in. There is a difference between the two and if there is a warning about the “plant” the manufacturer may not use the word “line” even if it was on the same line.
- The information on this website is to help you read and understand food labels, but If your allergic person has airborne allergies or is highly sensitive to a particular allergen, this may require further investigation to determine the product’s safety for your allergic person.
Now you should have a fairly solid understanding of the various issues that arise when reading food labels for the safety of an allergic person. Use this website to help you determine what food manufacturers are trustworthy labelers and what food manufacturers are untrustworthy labelers.
Most importantly – ALWAYS READ THE LABELS CAREFULLY!!