Food Allergy 101: Anatomy of a Customer Service Response Regarding Allergens

Woman Studying Label

Are you coping with a food allergy or responsible for someone that is? Then you’ve no doubt contacted the customer service department of a major food manufacturer to inquire about the safety of one of their products.

Why contact the manufacturer? Because due to lax US labeling regulations, there’s no way to know whether a product is safe for consumption by an allergic individual just by reading the label alone. Inclusion of “may contain” type warnings is entirely voluntary, and there is a complicated decision process manufacturers go through to determine whether to disclose the potential for cross-contact with each Top 8 allergen.

So you’ve taken the first step by reaching out to the manufacturer and they’ve responded with a message detailing their procedures. Or have they?

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Often, you’ll receive a canned response crafted by the manufacturer’s legal department that actually tells you little about what’s going on behind the scenes at their production facilities, even though it seems like they’ve answered your question in detail.

Let’s take a look at an example. Here’s a response from Kellogg’s regarding an inquiry into the potential for allergen contamination of one of their products (though it could be a response from any of a number of manufacturers.)  Note that we’ve changed the identifying information to protect the identity of the individual who submitted the inquiry:

August 2017
Jane,

Thank you for inquiring us. Your interest in our products is greatly appreciated and we are happy to provide more information to you.

We understand and share the concerns of consumers who are affected by food allergies. We continually partner with allergy organizations and research groups to remain knowledgeable and empathetic to the seriousness and complexities of food allergies. Our comprehensive allergen control program allows us to share the most accurate and precise allergen composition of our products on every product package.

All of our product packages label the top eight allergens (i.e. peanut, tree nut, cow’s milk, egg, soybean, wheat, fish and shellfish). These are identified using CONTAINS and/or MAY CONTAIN labeling statements immediately below the ingredient list. Allergens listed in the “CONTAINS” statement refers to the allergen(s) in the product’s recipe and ingredient list, while the “MAY CONTAIN’ statement refers to any allergen(s) not in the product’s recipe but may be present despite all efforts to exclude the allergen. Persons sensitive to any of the identified allergens in the “CONTAINS” or “MAY CONTAINS” statement should avoid that food.

In addition, products may be manufactured in different facilities from time to time, and because of this we do not provide information regarding specific allergens in our facilities or shared line/equipment information. We are confident in our allergen procedures and are committed to providing our consumers with foods that clearly state all information regarding top 8 allergens on our label.

Thanks again, Jane, for the time you took to contact us.

We’re always here to help. Additional comments or photos are welcome. Please share them by clicking here to add to this conversation.

Kellogg Consumer Affairs

Reference Number: XXXXXXXXXX
Email: To reply to this email click here
Phone: ‪1-800-962-1413‬
Hours: Monday – Friday 9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

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Given the above, you may think the company has provided a detailed response to your concerns. Let’s step through the sections and unpack what they’ve really told you.

We understand and share the concerns of consumers who are affected by food allergies. We continually partner with allergy organizations and research groups to remain knowledgeable and empathetic to the seriousness and complexities of food allergies. Our comprehensive allergen control program allows us to share the most accurate and precise allergen composition of our products on every product package.

That’s terrific… a company that partners with with allergy organizations and research groups and is empathetic to our concerns! Kellogg’s has a nice page that lists resources for the allergic, but not specifically who they partner with and how. We’ll take them at their word because what we’re really concerned with are their allergen disclosures. They’ve told us that they will share the most accurate and precise allergen composition of their products on every product package and we’re eager to learn more!

All of our product packages label the top eight allergens (i.e. peanut, tree nut, cow’s milk, egg, soybean, wheat, fish and shellfish). These are identified using CONTAINS and/or MAY CONTAIN labeling statements immediately below the ingredient list. Allergens listed in the “CONTAINS” statement refers to the allergen(s) in the product’s recipe and ingredient list, while the “MAY CONTAIN’ statement refers to any allergen(s) not in the product’s recipe but may be present despite all efforts to exclude the allergen. Persons sensitive to any of the identified allergens in the “CONTAINS” or “MAY CONTAINS” statement should avoid that food.

OK, so the yellow highlighted text tells us what we already know: they label when any of the Top 8 allergens is an ingredient of the product. We know this because they are required to do so by FALCPA regulations that took effect in 2006. We obviously didn’t see our allergen of concern in the CONTAINS statement or we wouldn’t have bothered to contact the company.

The blue text doesn’t shed much light on what we want to know: how they determine when to warn us of possible allergen cross-contact. They tell us they’ll warn us when an allergen is not in the product’s recipe but may be present despite all efforts to exclude the allergen. Great! We want to know what those efforts are and how they make that determination to warn us. Is it when a product is made on shared lines or in shared facilities? Do they swab and test the line for allergen residue and warn us when there’s indication of contamination? Do they batch test the final product for the presence of specific allergens? Let’s read on.

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In addition, products may be manufactured in different facilities from time to time, and because of this we do not provide information regarding specific allergens in our facilities or shared line/equipment information. We are confident in our allergen procedures and are committed to providing our consumers with foods that clearly state all information regarding top 8 allergens on our label.

OK… here’s some information. The yellow text informs us that they won’t warn us when allergens are processed in the same line or facility because it’s too difficult given how dynamic their manufacturing processes are. Really? Do they change their processes daily? Weekly? Monthly? What procedures do they have in place to ensure that proper allergen handling is in place given the constantly changing mix of allergens in their facilities?

The blue text sums it all up for us: They’re confident, so you should be confident. To paraphrase: “Trust us, in spite of the fact that we provide no other information on why you should other than telling you to.”

The important questions we want to know are left unanswered: Do they perform a visual inspection to ensure there is no visible residue after they run a product containing our allergen of concern and sanitize the line? Do they swab points on the line to test for leftover allergen trace or protein residue from the previous run? Do they test the first batch for allergen content to ensure no allergen was missed?

We don’t know because they won’t to tell us.

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Now you have a decision to make: Do I trust this major corporation, the one that owns the brand I’ve always associated with wholesome goodness, or do I take my business to another company that is more forthcoming with their procedures and decision making processes?

That’s entirely up to you. It depends on entirely your comfort level and the severity of your family’s allergies.

If you’re looking for more insight into how manufacturers make the decision to warn you about potential allergen cross contact, see our feature “When a Manufacturer Says ‘Trust Us’ Regarding Allergens:

When a Manufacturer Says ‘Trust Us’ Regarding Allergens

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