In early May 2008, I came across a website for a "nut-free" bakery in New England with which I was unfamiliar. Finding a new "free-from" food manufacturer is always exciting. Like unearthing a hidden treasure. This one was especially appealing because their cakes are different than the usual yellow cake. I finally got my hands on a slice of their cake, sold at supermarkets outside of Boston. There was just one problem. But when it comes to food allergies, this was not a little problem. The package bore two, conflicting labels. One label said "Made in a nut-free facility". The other label read "This item is produced in a facility where various types of nuts, peanuts and/or tree nuts are used."
Apparently, the bakery where the cake is baked does not use tree nuts or peanuts. The cakes are delivered as sheet cakes to the supermarket. The supermarket slices the cake and repackages each slice individually for sale. What if, through human error, the cake becomes cross-contaminated when it is sliced and repackaged? What if a nut-allergic person only reads the one label stating "Made in a nut-free facility" and not the supermarket label which bears the warning "This item is produced in a facility where various types of nuts, peanuts and/or tree nuts are used"? What if said nut-allergic person purchases and eats that fluke cross-contaminated cake and has a reaction? This is dangerous for nut-allergic and peanut-allergic individuals, and misleading to consumers generally.
I emailed the baker multiple times. No response. I contacted the supermarket. 4 weeks later, the cakes were still being labeled the same way! Next, I telephoned the corporate office of the supermarket. A few days later, the cakes were still labeled the same way, but someone had crossed out the words "Made in a nut-free facility" on most packages. This did not seem like an effective long term solution. I wondered what the labels were like at all the other supermarkets that carry these cake slices. A call to the Food Protection Program at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health followed by an email detailing this saga, complete with photos of the contradictory labels finally seems to have corrected the problem. The baker and supermarket--at the prodding of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health--are changing the labeling so the repackaged slices will no longer bear conflicting labels with confusing allergen information.
If you encounter a concerning food labeling situation, you may wish to seek assistance from some authority to urge a correction or modification. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has helpful information in a section of the FDA website titled How to Report Problems on Products Regulated by FDA. Phone numbers are provided on the FDA website for FDA District Office Consumer Complaint Coordinators for nearly every state. In addition, most states have enacted laws regarding food labeling as well. A good place to look for help at the state level might be the attorney general's office or the department of public health. These companies must be held accountable. Food allergies can be life-threatening and we cannot afford to overlook sloppiness on something as fundamental as a food label.