Saturday, June 16, 2012

When Reading Food Labels Simply Isn’t Enough

I know you haven't heard much from me this week, but I have been busy writing. No, not just my weekly column or new recipes for you, but asking for stronger labeling laws and stiffer penalties for companies who do not follow them.

This post is a long read, but worth your time. I am asking everyone who takes the time too read this to its entirety to please at least contact the FDA. The next one sick could be you.

 I have had my share of really weak employees with a poor work ethic. And, they think no one will ever know.

In retail or even academia, the two arenas where I spent the bulk of my career, that presumption just might play. But, when you are talking about food safety, you will always get busted. When I was catering, my rule of thumb for food safety was three days and it’s out even though the State Health Department allowed for food to be held for seven day—too long for me.

Food does have to be tainted to make a Celiac or someone gluten intolerant really, really sick. To fully understand this cryptic title, you have to travel back in time to April 7, 2011. The place was a little town in southwest Alabama, Jackson to be specific. I was thrilled to be spending three days in the town where I learned to ride a bicycle, got my first kiss, had my first date, proudly wore honor cords at graduation and sadly said farewell to my beloved parents. The high school I attended was having a “Grand” reunion spanning 14 years, and my classmates were the babies of the group.

Knowing how extremely sensitive my husband is to gluten, I do not travel anywhere without a pocketful of “Chef’s Card” along with breakfast and usually lunch foods, depending on where we will be. Going into the one and only restaurant open at the end of the first evening’s activities, we spoke personally with the owner, explaining the problem and giving him our “Chef Card”. He assured us there would be no problem. Later that night, Rick began to feel bloated and very uncomfortable. Determined not to “ruin” my grand reunion, he gutted out his discomfort.

To make a long story short, the inflammation created in his digestive system caused his diverticulosis to turn into diverticulitis. The result was a strong regimen of antibiotics causing a second extreme reaction—his skin and much of his digestive system became necrotic. As a result, Rick lost 26 pounds in 21 days, nearly costing him his life.

So, what happened? Apparently Rick’s steak was grilled on the same grill where this steak place grilled the Texas toast that is served alongside every steak, except ours.

I have no way of proving my theory, but I would wager the cook said to himself when reading our card, “It’s late, and no one will ever know”. He was oh so wrong! We knew for almost four long months

As those of us either with a Celiac or one who is severely gluten intolerant in our midst know, we read every word on the label of every product we buy, causing me hours and hours of time on the phone in the aisles of the grocery stores I frequent. For what it worth, I shop every store in the area plus Auburn University’s Meat Lab and local farmer’s markets.

Last Monday, my sweet husband ate dried mangoes distributed through Kroger under the name of Amport Foods, a company located in Minneapolis, and had a really bad reaction to gluten. How do we know this to be true? This one food was one we had never tried before, and true to form, he was extremely sick within 30 minutes of ingesting. The allergen warning on the label simply mentioned nuts. Rick is not allergic to any type of nut.

Not only did I send a scathing complaint to the company, I also asked Gigi Stewart of Gluten Free Gigi, Inc. to weigh in which she did admirably. She found among other things that:
a. All equipment is supposedly cleaned in between various allergens and each night when manufacturing and packaging ends.
b. Products can be randomly run on different equipment.
c. While wheat-containing breadsticks and sesame sticks are produced in the same facility as Amport's dried fruits, they say there is no airborne wheat or other gluten-containing flours in the facility.

In Amport’s email to me, they said there was no requirement to list gluten and suggested we simply not purchase their products.

Here is my response, in part, to Amport’s email to me:

“First, wheat is one of the allergens required by law to list as an allergen warning. Since your company produces wheat-containing breadsticks and sesame sticks in the same facility and on the same equipment, the label on the dried mango by law should have stated such.

Second, randomly running products on different equipment is the epitome of cross-contamination.

Third, there is no way without a very elaborate exhaust system and extensive allergen testing procedures in place to say with certainty your company has no airborne wheat or other gluten-containing flours in its facility.

Fourth, . . . Anyone who handles food, i.e, from those who gather crops in the fields to the truckers delivering it to the producers and manufacturers to those who sell food, cook and prepare food and serve food, have a moral obligation to ensure their food does not make anyone sick. And, when companies like American Importing Co Incorporated allows food to be contaminated during the processing and packaging and then does not take responsible action to warn innocent consumers, persons like yourself do not get sick; innocent people like my husband do.”

Finally, the point is not whether we will purchase any more of their products (we won’t), but whether any additional unsuspecting consumers will be injured by their improperly labeled products.

Let’s hold all companies accountable for their actions. And, just what can you do to toward this effort? For one thing, always put your complaint in writing. Companies do not have to give a written response, but most will. Another thing that all of us should do is to keep the pressure on FDA and our Senators and Representatives to (a) push for stronger labeling laws that include gluten as an allergen and (b) enact laws calling for stiff penalties for non-compliance. You can share your thoughts with FDA by writing to:

The Division of Dockets Management
Food and Drug Administration
5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061
Rockville, MD 20852

To find the address of your Congressional Representative go to and that of your Senator go to A friend of mine has a doctoral specialty in food safety said to keep your comments brief and factual, ending with a request for help in changing labeling laws and strengthening penalties.

A few other resources you may want to send your concerns, complaints or requests to include:
1. U S Food Safety, a private watchdog group that monitors recalls and much more
2. United States Department of Agriculture. The address for the Secretary can be found at

And, you will definitely want to visit Gigi Stewart’s website at Gluten Free Gigi ( for more information on cross contamination and what to do if you accidentally ingest gluten.

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