You’ve seen the labels all over the snack aisle: “may contain traces of tree nuts” or “made in the same factory as peanuts” … warnings meant to convey caution to those who may have peanut allergies or other health issues that can be exacerbated by nuts. Now, reports are surfacing that claim this good faith effort on the part of food manufacturers to keep their customers safe may well be making them sicker … or at least more confused.
Here’s the scenario: because foods made using ingredients that are linked to common allergies, peanuts, for example, must be properly and adequately labeled, manufacturers are going a step further and labeling other foods made on or near the same equipment. Because there’s really no easy way for manufacturers to know whether this food is “contaminated” with more allergy causing products, they err on the side of caution, even though they’re not required to by law.
Here’s the rub: the report shows these “may contain…” or “made in the same…” warnings are confusing to people because they don’t offer a clear delineation of risk. Thus, according to a recent report in the Associated Press, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is calling for food industry regulators to “clear consumer confusion” by employing labels that “better reflect the level of risk.”
According to research, consumers see these somewhat vague warnings and simply ignore them. Researchers on the project called that “playing Russian roulette” with food. It’s literally a growing problem, as today there are an estimated 12 million Americans with food allergies, but that number appears to be rising.
The report suggested food manufacturers take even more steps to better inform parents about allergy prevention as well as the difference between true food allergies and symptoms of other medical issues that may look like an allergic reaction.
On the other side of the equation, researchers are calling for better training for teachers, childcare workers, and restaurant employees who could come into contact with someone having a severe allergic reaction and not know how to respond.
At the core of all of these suggestions is effective communication. If people have a clear understanding of the information and the associated risk, they can make the best possible decision. Manufacturers only have so much space on their labels for disclaimers, though. Messages should be clear, concise, and direct.