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Chocolate bar recall underlines labelling shortcomings

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 27-Nov-2008

A Chicago Tribune investigation into the recall of Swiss-manufactured Whole Foods chocolate bars has highlighted problems with the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) labelling guidelines for allergens.

At present, manufacturers are only obliged to mention an allergen if it is an ingredient in their product, although this looks set to change as the FDA is seeking advice on implementing stricter, uniform allergen labelling.

The Whole Foods chocolate was discovered to contain tree nuts last year when a child with a tree nut allergy suffered a reaction after eating it. This occurred one year after new labels had been added, stating that “good manufacturing practices” were “used to segregate” the bars from potential allergens, such as tree nuts, soy and milk, also handled at the factory. Over one million chocolate bars were recalled, but the same label still appears on other Whole Foods products.

The Tribune investigation discovered that the bars were in fact manufactured in a way that exposed consumers to potential allergens.

Rules for warning labels

The reason for this is that while US law requires major allergens to be declared on labels, they do not have to disclose allergens which may be unintentionally present. Wording to describe potential cross-contamination also varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, opening up further possibility for confusion.

US manufacturers often use the phrase: “Made on equipment that also processes allergen,” but Whole Foods defends its decision to use the ‘segregation’ statement by saying: “Whole Foods Market Private Label does not gather shared equipment information, because it is the manufacturer's legal right to change equipment used for production (as long as GMPs [good manufacturing practices] are used). We do gather shared allergens in a manufacturing facility, and this information is reflected on the label.”

The FDA is currently developing a long-term strategy to assist manufacturers in using allergen advisory labelling that is “truthful and not misleading, conveys a clear and uniform message, and adequately informs food-allergic consumers and their caregivers”.

It is seeking comments and information from the food industry for the best way to help consumers avoid cross-contaminated food. Written submission must be heard before January 14, 2009.

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