So there I was after having gotten home this evening, munching a dish of pork and rice (cannot really call it a biryani, as it wasn’t traditionally made or anything of the sort), and staring sleepily at the jar of dried chili pepper flakes on my table. The back of the jar had the usual regulatory nonsense (well, important labelling information, rather, but it is really mostly nonsense in case of dried chili flakes), as well as a large and prominently displayed allergen info section.
The said section, broken into several sentences, informed the concerned consumer (or well, me in this case) that there were no nuts in the chili flakes, nor were nuts handled in the factory where the said chili flakes were processed, however — and here’s the kicker — the manufacturer/retailer could not guarantee that the said jar of dried chili flakes was “nut free” regardless of all of the above.
Now, as a food professional who frequently works on the specification/documentation side of things, I, of course, understand precisely how and why the manufacturer and retailer have arrived at this resulting display of self-explanatory madness. I have filled out countless specifications and allergen assessment and risk assessment forms, and know the criteria for any of the half-dozen commonly used statements in regards not to what the product contains or does not, but to what might have possibly, unbeknownst to the very diligent manufacturer, touched or sneezed at the product at some point of its life — starting from its humble origins as a seed germinating into an agricultural crop or the same seed being consumed as lifestock animal feed, and ending with it being sealed at the final manufacturing/packaging facility.
Seeing these statements on the otherwise innocuous jar of very decent chili flakes has frankly pissed me off.
Yes. I know that nut allergy (and a few other food allergies) is a deadly condition affecting a [very small] proportion of the world’s population. Yes, I know that the said allergies can be fatal, and that those affected by them should be given any support they need to avoid accidentally eating the foods that would be dangerous to them. I can also agree that some sort of allergy labeling is very necessary on many foods, especially compound ones with not all ingredients clearly evident (like muesli, for example).
What I certainly do not agree with (personally, not professionally), is the fact that the lawsuit-for-damages culture has penetrated so far into the society and has put the food industry in such a position where the labeling of allergens (and anything else that may possibly cause an adverse reaction) is taken far beyond the necessary and diligent, and into the realm of the ridiculous CYA-at-any-cost.
From where I sit, were I a food allergy sufferer (I am not, thank the parents in more than one way!), I would not WANT that sort of labeling. What I would have liked to know would have been, depending on the severity of my allergy, is whether there was something IN the product, and then if more severe, whether there was something handled in same factory/on same line as the product. Meaning, whether there is a realistic risk of me getting sick from eating this particular thing. But the whole wording of “cannot guarantee nut free” smacks not of trying to serve the nut allergy sufferers who should on the pain of death stay away from the chili flakes (which are neither nuts, nor handled in same facility as nuts), but of a manufacturer/retailer’s attempt to cover their behind in case of a lawsuit resulting from someone eating a chili flake and having a violent allergic reaction. No, I do not blame the industry for trying to cover themselves. It is a survival method — allergy sufferers are few enough that most people do not read these labels. What I do blame, are the people who cause such labeling to become necessary. I doubt they believe they are doing good for the allergy sufferers. I doubt they care much for that at all, since the result is not that of better clarity, but in the end, labels which allergy sufferers will have to either ignore, or not buy or eat anything unless it is “guaranteed free from” ever again.
In the end, it does not cost the industry much (other than the annoyance of packaging redesign and the cost for printing new labels) to stick stupid warnings of this sort on everything and anything they produce. But since no one can truly ever guarantee that the said chili flakes weren’t grown in a field where a stray peanut plant did not shed a few molecules on the peppers as they ripened, or that some flour dust from a bakery some miles off did not blow over those chilies as they dried in the hot sun, or that the fertilizer did not contain any still-recognizable fish or shellfish parts in it… you get the idea. Most food is not and cannot be “guaranteed” free from anything. Yes, I suppose tuna does not normally contain milk, nor does soy generally contain eggs, but the question which must be asked — where does one stop? At what level of detection (or ridiculousness)?
And where, pray tell, is the personal responsibility of the people who need the “guaranteed free from” labeling? Can they not trust the fact that a bottle of milk (containing milk, of course) does not have fish if there is no fish in the milk, nor in the milk farm or processing plant? Do they need the guarantee for their peace of mind after all? Or is it simply that they would use the fact that they were “misled” by the absence of “cannot guarantee fish free” label on milk for a lawsuit against the milk retailer or manufacturer just because they can?
I say this not to the average allergy sufferer (who is not at fault here at all), nor to the manufacturers (who need the protection), but to those who have taken and still take advantage of any loophole to exploit the food industry on this matter — grow the hell up. Really.