Shared Equipment & Facilities and Food Allergy

I used to only contact a company when issues arose with a product – that is, in my pre-food allergy family days.  Now I reach out to research ingredients and also to praise staff members that go above and beyond the call (at a restaurant we once had a vegetarian server that had a family member with food allergies she was awesome – I was compelled to e-mail the company about her and review the experience at Allergy Eats).  Sometimes it takes a few discussions to explain my question (when I called a fast food chain to see about the ingredients in their bread the response to “does it contain oats?” was met at first with “you mean gluten, right?”) but the effort is worth it.

This month’s Food Allergy Buzz Blog Carnival theme is cross contamination, that is, that foods that don’t have an allergenic ingredient by design may contain that ingredient by virtue of being in the same factory or on shared equipment.  For a restaurant you can see how easy it would be to just throw one customer’s order onto the griddle with another’s (imagine making a batch of regular pancakes and then pouring out gluten free pancake batter onto the same surface immediately thereafter).  A factory may not be so different if one flavor or variety is made and then another variant is sent through (for example, a potato chip production line could have sour cream and onion chips on the same equipment as plain chips).

Some companies voluntarily disclose shared equipment or facility warnings but for families with allergies that are not in the United States’ “top 8” (wheat, soy, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, milk and egg) the statements are not entirely helpful.  Further, the statements themselves are not regulated because of their voluntary nature.  Say a label proclaims the absence of an allergen but is silent about another.  Could you safely assume that the non-mention means the item is safe for your family?  Not always.

My directly relevant example is a product currently sold at our local Southern Nevada Costco.  It is called “Eat Pastry” and is a vegan, gluten free cookie dough in a tub.  You just scoop and bake, easy right?  I was thrilled to stumble upon it and the label seemed to check out.  I like supporting allergy friendly products at Costco, plus, it was cookie dough!

What I did know, however, was that a large portion of chocolate is by its nature cross contaminated with nuts (for allergy friendly chocolate, look no further than Enjoy Life, by the way) whether or not it is disclosed, so I went to the company website and found this in their frequently asked questions:

Q. I see that you use nut extracts in the Chocolate Chunk and Chocoholic Chunk cookie dough flavors. What type of extract do you use?

A. We use a trace amount of pure almond extract in these two flavors. Because the amount is so small, it is not listed as an actual ‘ingredient.’

Oh no, I thought.  They were referring to two wheat based varieties but I didn’t like that they were deciding not to list a nut extract because they decided an amount was “small.”  So I e-mailed the company:

To Whom it May Concern:

I bought your cookie dough at costco today and then I saw on your website about undisclosed almond extract – is that something that applies to this particular variety?  My daughter has life threatening food allergies, I appreciate all your disclosures on your packaging about being gluten free, egg free, etc. but I was nervous when I saw the FAQ on your website.  Please advise as to whether this product contains undisclosed nuts or nut derivatives.  Also, are there nuts in your facility?  

Thank you,
Homa Woodrum”

A day later came this friendly reply, from the CEO no less:

“Hi Homa, Thanks for your email. We do not use nut extract in our gluten free chocolate chip cookie dough (that is used in our regular chocolate chip cookie dough, which is not gluten free). We do however handle peanuts in our facility. We make our own peanut butter and make a peanut butter cookie dough, but we produce all peanut butter products on designated days to prevent cross contamination. We also thoroughly clean and sanitize all shared equipment and work areas between each production run so that allergens are kept separate.
We do not handle nuts in our facility, only the almond extract. 

I hope this information helps, and that your daughter is able to enjoy the cookies!

Please let me know if you have any other questions.

Best,
Jessie
Jessie Williams
Co-Founder/CEO

I used this as an opportunity to bring up a suggested packaging change:

Thank you so much for the prompt reply – I think your packaging is adorable and your product delicious but I hope in future you consider disclosing the shared facility and equipment on your labels.  I know that is not required but when I see that a product is free from so many allergens (and rightfully proud of it) as a consumer I would assume that the absence of a peanut or tree nut statement implies that there is no concern on that front.  Of course you can’t please all people and it is especially tricky when you are dealing with so many segments (gluten free, vegan, etc.) but I just thought I’d mention it in case it is something you can consider in the future.
Thank you again and I hope you have a wonderful day!
Homa”

Ms. Williams wrote back to say that they would certainly consider my suggestion in future packaging decisions.  I was reminded of the exchange when I saw smaller versions of the Eat Pastry product at Whole Foods recently, right next to the peanut butter variety she references in her e-mail.

Eat Pastry at Whole Foods

Had I seen the product where it was side by side with the peanut butter variety I may have skipped it, so you can see how one can’t just rely on what is on the shelf to know what is in a factory.

Eat Pastry

All that said, if nuts aren’t something you’re concerned about, the dough bakes up fantastically and tastes great out of the tub as well.  It is a great example of not being able to rely on a package alone, or the inclusion of “free from” statements.

I am not as vigilant a label reader as I’d like to be!  I bought a bag of fresh spinach at Trader Joe’s earlier this year and was surprised to see a shared equipment disclosure on the package:

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So I did what any food allergy mom would do, I took to twitter with my guilty confession that I’d failed to read the label.  Sloane Miller (Allergic Girl) encouraged me to reach out to Trader Joe’s and see what was going on.  I included a link to the twitter conversation that had ensued regarding the picture along with my question so they could see it was not just one querying customer.

Hi Homa,

I thought I would drop you line in the event we continue to play phone tag.

I did some research and found out that the allergen statement on the package was placed due to the fact that the facility processes other pre packaged salads that includes products containing the allergens noted.

That said, the allergen containing products come into the facility pre packed in individual pouches.

I hope this information is helpful. Please feel free to give me a call if you have further questions. Also, my direct e-mail address is [redacted].

Thanks for shopping with us,
Nikki

I will add that for those that may think I can just keep reaching out to companies about food allergy safety on my daughter’s behalf, please consider well meaning people that do a cursory check of a product regarding safety to bring to, say, a school function.  I know that on a regular basis my daughter’s teacher will email me and say a certain item seems to check out online as nut, oat, and sesame free but she still checks with me, which I very much appreciate.

Somewhere between a company deciding whether a trace amount is too small to disclose (see above) or a company that makes a blanket warning on a single ingredient item (see above also), I think there needs to be a real discussion about labeling and disclosure not just for the benefit of food allergic families but all who wish to know what they’re eating.  Then there’s non food products, like toothpaste, that don’t have to disclose ingredients in the same way the top 8 are disclosed.

Both my examples above involve nuts but I know of a friend’s daughter who is anaphylactic to milk or another friend’s daughter who is allergic to flax (something companies really like to leave off labels), so the concept of transparency in labeling is far reaching.  I’d love to see better on package disclosures, but acknowledging that this is not always a possibility because of space, I certainly feel that websites should list full ingredients and manufacturing circumstances.  They almost certainly maintain such records internally, or at least I hope so!

8 thoughts on “Shared Equipment & Facilities and Food Allergy

  1. What a great post. I admire all you do to get to the truth about labeling. I understand how time consuming that can be. I call restaurants all of the time about cross contamination. Thank you for sharing what you learned. I had no idea about Trader Joe’s pre-packaged salads!!

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    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! I know some folks avoid TJ’s as a matter of course but we’ve had pretty good luck finding safe options there. I suppose it depends on the particular allergies you’re dealing with but I can also see that they are inconsistent in their labeling depending on who they are contracting with. Sigh. Thanks again!

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  2. I agree!!! Totally!!! I will also add restaurants to the wish list. I was researching places to eat for a future trip with my food allergic child. No mentions of allergens on the menu. Then on this distant webpage there is a warning hidden in a very long paragraph about nutritional and dietary requests that said to assume that everything in the kitchen is cross contaminated and not safe for severely allergic people. I am thankful for their honesty, but why was this not on in a more visible location!!! Not everyone does the amount of research I do! According to the menu it would have been a great place to eat. Also of note is that after my deep investigation I also learned their cornbread contained both peanuts and tree nuts. Who puts nuts in cornbread!!!???

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    1. Thank you, Grace, you make a great point about being more forthcoming about allergens since many won’t seek much further. I know I don’t always do the sleuthing I should. We went to a place once that initially said they could accommodate us but then backpedaled and said they couldn’t be sure about any ingredients they used so those with allergies had better not eat there. I was most disappointed by their initial claim that they could assist us. And I have never heard of nuts in cornbread!

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  3. Who knew cross-contamination would be an issue for a bag of spinach? Good reminder to always read labels. I know lately I haven’t been checking as carefully b/c I feel comfortable with the products we’ve been buying, but the labels do certainly change. I can think of 2 products in particular we’ve had to stop buying. Kudos to you for reaching out to these companies to get some answers and make recommendations. Thanks, Heddi

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    1. I think that is what is hitting a nerve for people – the disclosure is valid but at the same time to have a single ingredient food carry a warning like that raises a lot of questions about what goes on in food production. And great point about continuing to read labels that are supposed to be safe from prior use, they certainly change! Thank you Heddi!

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