A reader recently notified me of a new nut-free bakery in nearby Rhode Island. I was so excited! I thought, this is great, more options! It just keeps getting better and better, doesn't it? Or so I thought. Here is what the website states:
"No nuts are present in our AIB-Certified facility, so our baked goods never come into contact with nuts of any kind. Our nut-free facility means that people with nut allergies can rest assured when enjoying our delicious baked goods."
That sounds good, right? It states that, however, right below their list of cookie flavors and the cookie flavors were concerning--they use M&M's. That's right, this "nut-free" bakery apparently uses plain M&M's. It's actually the first cookie flavor they have listed. One of the photos on their website looks like a brownie topped with M&M's.
"may contains" = risk of cross contamination
As most peanut and nut-allergic individuals know, plain M&M's packages bear "may contain peanuts" statements. That means there could be trace amounts of peanuts in the plain M&M's. In fact, recently there was a news story about a mother accused of murdering her peanut allergic child with plain M&M's.
The bakery's website further states "We make natural baked goods in a nut-free facility for restaurants, cafeterias, and other foodservice outlets." Yipes. Does this mean that restaurants and other businesses are then serving/selling what they believe to be nut-free baked goods?
Yesterday, I sent an email to the bakery--Cross Country Cookie--to inquire about their use of M&M's as a "nut-free" bakery but have not heard back from them yet. I can't help but wonder, if they use M&M's, what kind of chocolate are they using? Their use of M&M's raises all sorts of questions about the nut-free nature of their baked goods or lack thereof. I suggested some alternative sources of chocolate and candy to them, with the hope that they will switch to nut-safe and peanut-safe ingredients. If they are going to use ingredients which bear "may contains" warnings, they should change the wording on their website and other materials, and not refer to their food as nut-free, or include the "may contains" warning on their own labels. I hope to hear back from them soon. I must note, the bakery is not new. According to their website, they've been in business for 25 years.
I write this post to remind readers that the terms nut-free and peanut-free mean different things to different companies and different people. Until the FDA defines what peanut-free and nut-free should mean on food labels, manufacturers will continue to use these terms (and terms like dairy-free, soy-free, etc.) how they wish. It's potentially dangerous but that's the reality. It's so easy to imagine how things could go very wrong when a bakery says it is nut-free but uses ingredients that contain traces of peanuts and/or nuts. Some nut allergic and peanut allergic individuals react to trace amounts. We know this. Some of us have experienced this ourselves, or witnessed it, or read newspaper articles about horrific reactions to trace amounts. You see where I'm going with this. I don't think I need to spell it out more.
This problem is not limited to peanut and nut allergies; it's across the board, for all food allergies. A free-from food labeled as such, should actually be free of that ingredient. This is why I believe the FDA should set official definitions and thresholds for free-from food labels, but that's a story for another day.