Death by Labeling: Protecting Consumers with Serious Food Allergies

by Shireen Yates, Nima CEO

Protecting consumers with food allergies and intolerances should be top priority for all food manufacturers and any professionals who regularly distribute or prepare food. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, the United States has one of the highest rates of anaphylaxis in the world. What’s more, this number appears to be growing: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of food allergies in children increased by more than 50 percent from 1997 to 2008. Every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency room.

Labels Save Lives

With more people suffering from food allergies than ever before, it’s crucial that manufacturers list all ingredients and clearly identify any allergens in their products. In January 2014, a 38-year-old man from England died from severe anaphylactic shock when he ate take out curry that contained peanuts. The customer specified “no nuts” when he ordered the curry, but the restaurant switched almond powder in the recipe for a cheaper nut mix that contained peanuts. As a result, the restaurant owner was found guilty of manslaughter.

In the US, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) was passed in 2004 and requires manufacturers to label foods containing the eight major allergens: milk, egg, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans. The legislation was a huge step to protect consumers with these food allergies, although it may not be as helpful for patients with less-common food allergies. By including allergy warnings for less-common allergens such as lactose, sesame seeds, mustard, or additives, manufacturers can help keep more of their customers safe and prevent horrific deaths like the one that occurred in the U.K.

Use Straightforward Terms for Potential Allergens

Another way manufacturers can protect consumers is through clear, specific naming. Sometimes when a patient or parent is scanning an ingredients list, they look for the most straightforward name of the ingredient they’re allergic to, and aren’t prepared for the obscure terminology that often makes up those lists. An article by Safety Skills points out that wheat can appear under a variety of different, including graham, durum, semolina or spelt, to name a few. A patient, parent or caregiver can be diligent in checking the labeling on packages, but they might not know to look for these alternate names. One of the easiest ways a manufacturer can protect their customers is by using the clearest, most specific and most straightforward name for an ingredient in order to avoid confusion.

Researchers at the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology counted 2,458 deaths due to anaphylaxis and an additional 593 deaths due to fatal allergic reactions over a twelve-year period. In order to prevent allergy-related deaths, manufacturer’s need to implement crucial safety precautions:

  • Include clear labeling that includes an ingredients list in straightforward language and allergy warnings
  • Include clear labeling of potential contaminants if a product is produced in a factory that also produces food with a common allergen
  • Implement safety precautions to avoid cross-contamination in factories, including cleaning and sterilizing contact equipment and verifying that suppliers have procedures in place to prevent contamination as well
  • Communicate with suppliers to ensure that no ingredients that go into a product come in contact with an allergen
  • Implement storage procedures that keep food products away from potential allergens that aren’t listed on the ingredients list

How Food Service Professionals Can Prevent Cross-Contamination

While most of this article has addressed packaged foods, restaurant owners and employees can also protect customers with food allergies by taking safety precautions when handling food. Auditing services such Kitchens with Confidence can help identify risk points specific to your business and implement practices that reduce the risk for contamination.

Servers can check in with their guests to make sure that they’re aware of any potential allergies that cooks should know about. Cooks, servers, and any restaurant employees who come into contact with food should be educated about the risks of contamination and careful when handling food that’s served to guests with allergies. Preventing contamination at restaurants is possible as long as owners and managers are proactive in educating their employees about potential risks and developing procedures that protect guests at every step of the process, from sourcing ingredients to serving food at the table.

If you have a gluten intolerance or a peanut allergy, another tool you should be aware of is the Nima portable peanut or gluten sensor! These handy tools can test your food for the allergen before you eat, providing extra peace of mind and added safety.

As food allergies become more common, companies need to be proactive in the approach, not just abiding by local laws, but taking all necessary steps to protect their customers. Ingredients lists, allergy warnings, and clear labeling are huge tools for people with food allergies, and manufacturers can help customers by making their labels as straightforward, legible and thorough as possible.

Consumers need to continue to be their own best advocate

No matter how aware a food service establishment appears to be when it comes to food allergies and dietary restrictions, it’s important that consumers continue to be their own advocates whenever eating outside of the home. A prior positive experience should not replace the conversation with the necessary waitstaff or food service providers to make a consumers’ needs and dietary preferences explicit. We see Nima users using their Nima consistently, even in places where they go often because food suppliers, menu items and waitstaff change frequently.

The good news is there has never been more data to help you make a more informed decision at meal time. Whether you are reviewing an allergen-specific app for leads (AllergyEats, Spokin, FindMeGlutenfree, Nima) or testing food yourself with your connected food sensor — the intersection of technology and health is overlapping for people with food allergies in an unprecedented way to help consumers navigate being safe, social and satiated.


Shireen Yates is the cofounder and CEO of Nima. Nima has created the world’s first portable sensor that tests food for gluten or peanuts in minutes. Nima’s award winning technology and antibody-based chemistry was developed by MIT scientists and is partially funded by the National Institute of Health. To learn more visit www.nimasensor.com.