Natural Foods Merchandiser

Many food products mislabeled, investigation finds

Many products stacked on grocery shelves, including some sold at major natural foods retailers, contain food allergens not listed on the label, a Chicago Tribune investigation revealed.

The investigation findings have led to the recall of thousands of units of various products, the Tribune said.

The paper tested thousands of products at local grocery stores and chains in the Chicago area for milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. The newspaper identified 117 products whose labels "appear to violate federal food labeling laws."

"This could be a very serious problem for people who are allergic to foods," said Ruth Frechman, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. And since there are few ways for retailers to ensure the accuracy of product labels short of testing the foods themselves, consumers would need to be extra vigilant.

"The better informed the customer, the better it is for their health," Frechman said.

The paper identified five types of problems:

  1. Foods containing unlabeled allergens
  2. Confusing labels using scientific or alternative names for allergens ("durum semolina" for wheat or "whey powder" for milk, for example, which may confuse children trying to choose safe foods
  3. Oat products contaminated with wheat
  4. Labeling violations on imported foods such as listing ingredients in a foreign language
  5. Unlabeled foods

Large and small chains were found stocking the mislabeled products. Supermarkets owned by Safeway Inc. and Whole Foods Markets were among the stores stocking mislabeled foods, and Nestle Australia Ltd. made one of the products containing confusing labels, though a spokeswoman for the company told the Tribune that the company stopped exporting the candy bars to the United States late last year.

The Food and Drug Administration requires that all labels contain the ingredients used to produce the product, but foods at risk of containing allergens due to cross-contamination do not need to be stated on the label.

Products containing undisclosed allergens included:

  • Caramel Collection candy by Seattle-based Theo Chocolate, which recalled 5,000 packages sold at Whole Foods Markets
  • Eddie's New York City Gourmet Pizza Slices, sold at Safeway Inc.'s Dominick's grocery chain
  • Lund's Swedish Pancake Mix
  • Oats made by Quaker Oats Co., which contained gluten, probably due to cross-contamination.
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