Greater Need For Allergy Warnings?

The Wall Street Journal has a poll that says 1 in 5 US households have a member with a food allergy and that 1 in 3 of those households say the allergy is serious. A third of those with serious food allergies say they’ve experienced allergic reaction because they weren’t informed about an ingredient in a restaurant. One third also said they’d experienced reactions because of incorrectly labeled foods.

That seems lame. Is it time for more accurate and easy to find labels on food? From the WSJ:

The National Institutes of Health has called food allergies an emerging public health problem in the U.S. due to a rising incidence of serious allergic reactions to food products. The agency says about 30,000 individuals require emergency-room treatment each year as a result of food allergies, and in 2004, Congress passed a law that requires food labels to identify the food source of all major food allergens.

People with food allergies, what do you think?

Serious Food Allergies Indicate Need for Greater Precautions [Wall Street Journal]
(Photo:Maulleigh)

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  1. Mark 2000 says:

    I wouldn’t take what people say seriously. That number is ridiculous. Parents can mistake every little rash as a food allergy. I know I’ve done that in the past. Ask doctors how many food allergies they’ve diagnosed. That would be more accurate.

  2. DarrenO says:

    Food allergies are serious things. MSG sets off a migraine for me pretty much every time I’m exposed to it. It’s a real pain (pun intended) to have to ask in every restaurant or to have to read every label every time I shop. I’d love a system where things like MSG that are known to cause problems are labeled clearly and easily on food in the store and on restaurant menus.

  3. Steel_Pelican says:

    The real problem here is with restaurants, because food packaging lists ingredients. I’d hate to see that sort of information printed on a restaurant menu, because I think it’s excessive.

    Restaurants should be required to keep a detailed ingredient list for every dish served, available upon request. This way, allergy sufferers can ask to see the “allergy menu” before they order, restaurants don’t need to change their menus, and non-sufferers don’t need to be inconvenienced with the minutia of their hamburger.

  4. fluiddruid says:

    It would be better to poll doctors as to how many allergy diagnoses they have done. Self-reporting in this case seems to be extremely high. After all, what is “serious”? Serious definitely means “a molecule of peanut in the same room lands me in the hospital”, but to a lot of people, I imagine it means “I think that headache I had was from eating pepper jack cheese once”.

  5. yasth says:

    @Mark 2000
    How exactly do you plan on taking that number and making it into a prevalence statistic?

    Do I think the number over estimated (especially the unlabeled packaged food one)? Yes of course, but don’t replace a bad number with a worse one.

  6. campero says:

    Many food allergies are just mental…you don’t see people with food allergies in other countries like you see in the States.

  7. RossMcD says:

    I think those numbers are pretty close. According to the national institutes of health about 6-8% of young children have food allergies and 2% of adults have them. [www.niaid.nih.gov]

    If we assume that the average household has 2 adults and 2 kids, then that adds up to a 4% chance that an adult has a food allergy and a 14% that a child does. This adds up to an 18% chance that at least one person in the household has an allergy. That number is just slightly less than the 1 out of 5 reported in the poll.

    Food allergies are a very big party of my life. My girlfriend is allergic to a great many foods, and goes to the allergist once or twice a year. I’m mildly allergic to shellfish, and my mom is severely so. My brother and father have no allergies.

  8. Xerloq says:

    My wife and son have diagnosed food allergies. I don’t think we need a requirement to list all ingredients, but they should be available on request. Servers should know, as well. People (and parents of those) with allergies should be responsible to check.

    On the flipside, restaurants should be responsible to avoid cross contamination. I’ve witnessed a time or two where the meal ordered didn’t contain the specific food, but was prepared using the same utensils or cookware, causing an allergic reaction which resulted in an ER visit and large doses of Benadryl.

  9. amazon says:

    I don’t see a problem with self-reporting for allergies. (Not including children). I have food allergies and I’m pretty qualified to tell you what has the real potential to kill me, and what will just make me sick.

    I have found that it is a lot harder to find out the ingrediants of restaurant food in the US than it is in Canada (where I live). It is not uncommon here to find a menu that has a small warning beside the item (like a picture of a nut) to let the consumers know that it could contain a common allergen. The real trouble comes when the restaurant doesn’t actually prepare the item in question (pretty common for desserts).

    In any event, it is high time food be labelled clearly (I cannot even dare to imagine a day when the labelling may be standardized) for those with food allergies. For me, this is much more important than knowing the number of calories or the amount of trans fat in whatever I’m eating, as my life sometimes depends on it.

  10. zentec says:


    I don’t have food allergies, but I do get weekly shots for bee stings and get to sit around in the waiting room for 45 minutes with a bunch of people who do. These poor people pack Epipens when they go out to eat, and it just seems like common sense that the restaurant should provide some sort of listing to avoid anaphylaxis. I can’t imagine the restaurant industry putting up any sort of resistance to providing such information.

    With respect to the poll, I think those numbers are not accurate. Unless the respondents have been to an allergist and subjected themselves to all the tests, they have no idea if they have an allergy or some other issue. And there’s a world of difference between having hives the size of silver dollars break out all over your body and your throat swelling shut and eating a wayward peanut and getting a strange rash that’s gone by morning.

  11. no.no.notorious says:

    resturaunt owners don’t care about food allergies unless they have any themselves, or if they know someone close to them has some. it’s unfortunate, but it’s true.

  12. e-gadgetjunkie says:

    My mother has a serious allergy to corn. No matter how often she says it at a restaurant, half of the servers, if they do actually check the ingredients, don’t seem to recognize corn syrup as corn.

  13. Mark 2000 says:

    Food allergies in adults is the worst kind of self misdiagnoses. Most people think because they got sick after eating something they are allergic to it. Most people don’t realize that they’ve been mildly food poisoned by something they ate 24-36 hours after they ate it. They blame the food they just ate and the association with sickness makes them have a reaction to it over an over again. But that isn’t an allergy.

  14. Hanke says:

    I love clam chowder, and seafood bisque, but can’t have it if there is any crab in it. Different places mmake the same dish differently.

    I just ask the waiter/waitress, and if she doesn’t know, she finds out. Never had a problem.

  15. Steel_Pelican says:

    @Mark 2000: And to think, all those times that people go into anaphylaxic shock every year from eating shrimp are just remembering food poisoning from years and years ago!

    You should alert the scientific community, because medical professionals are diagnosing and treating thousands of people for this condition. Stupid doctors!

  16. Terek Kincaid says:

    Yeah, it seems so strange the restaurants don’t have this information readily available. My 2 year old son is allergic to eggs, which is a pain to stay away from. The kid’s menu at a place like Applebee’s is loaded with egg in places you wouldn’t normally think: breading on the chicken fingers, the pasta in the mac and cheese and spaghetti. Even some breads are made with some egg (and he is violently allergic to any amount). We ask if anything has egg, and the server usually doesn’t know, which is Ok. They send out the manager, who also usually doesn’t know, and doesn’t really know how to find out, which is not Ok. They basically get all of their food in bulk bags or boxes with no ingredients listed. A couple of restaurants have binders with the info, most don’t. I know we can’t be the first people to ask what is in the food we are eating. Is it so hard to keep those binders around?

  17. ancientsociety says:

    Yes, there should be stricter labeling. I’m lactose intolerant and some of the “allergen” language is vague, at best.

    ‘Processed in a facility that uses milk, eggs….’ – wtf does that MEAN? Will I get sick or am I okay? That’s a crap shoot.

    But the problem is also going to get worse with the widespread use of genetic modification. Take a peanut gene and put it into something like a strawberry – will that make people have a reaction? What is the level of exposure before its dangerous to those allergic? How do you label that?

  18. ntlhp says:

    Hi, to answer the specific question asked yes better labeling would help. The improvements already made by some companies to some lables does assist me. I am the mother of a child with Severe Ige Mediated food allergies that can cause an immune system response that could cause anaphylaxis which could lead to death. This has been verified both by history and by medical testing. My son had a reaction to bakery bread there was no listing of any nuts (his allergen) on the lable. There was no statement in regard to possible cross contamination. It is lame my child could end up in the ER or worse from a mislabled item. This line of thinking follows through to restaurants. I have asked my servers and managers about what kind of oil they use and about cross contamination issues. Most answer me with a well I think it is vegtable oil. I have to ask them to go check as it is my sons life at risk.

  19. CumaeanSibyl says:

    @Steel_Pelican: I like that idea. It seems like the most sensible option — which means it’ll never happen.

  20. @zentec: “I can’t imagine the restaurant industry putting up any sort of resistance to providing such information.”

    Sadly it’s often servers or kitchen staff who don’t understand the seriousness of food allergies (or who have been exposed to people who invent imaginary allergies) and who just don’t give a rat’s ass. If you’re at a chain and the corporate policy is to be super-careful about people’s allergies but the kitchen staff finds it an unnecessary bother, the best policies in the world won’t fix that. (Firings will, though!)

    And then there’s that charming subset of people who believe allergies are imaginary and deliberately sneak peanuts into the food of people with serious peanut allergies.

    As with so many other things, one must find the good places and refuse to patronize the bad places.

  21. balthisar says:

    @e-gadgetjunkie: Is she allergic to corn syrup, or corn, or both? I’m allergic (only mildly) to corn, but not at all to corn syrup (or corn oil) because all of the allergens are processed out. You’re left with “pure sugar” or “pure oil” and nothing else.

    (This same goes for people who have peanut allergies vs. peanut oil, incidentally.)

  22. Mark 2000 says:

    @Steel_Pelican: Thank’s for the sarcasm, buddy. You might have noticed its not doctor diagnosis that I have a problem with, its self. But you can ignore that if you really need to be a dick to me.

  23. balthisar says:

    My comment got eaten — hopefully it won’t dupe.

    @e-gadgetjunkie: is she allergic to corn, corn syrup, or corn oil? I’m mildly allergic to corn, but corn syrup and oil aren’t problems, because all of the allergens are processed out of them. Corn syrup is just sugar with no corny residue, and corn oil is similarly safe. In fact most people with peanut allergies are perfectly safe in eating things with peanut oil.

  24. bohemian says:

    I have some diagnosed food allergies (wheat and sodium nitrate). Eating out is a total pain.

    Some people that don’t have serious food allergies think it is all in people’s heads or they are just being picky. It’s not. I’m one of those lucky people that gets to haul an epi-pen everywhere.

    Even if restaurants had an allergen list, servers who don’t care or don’t think allergies are serious won’t give you an accurate answer.

    I think the idea of ingredient list menus you can request are a stellar idea. Then the apathetic server can just dump the additional menu on the table and let me figure out what I am going to order.

    What it will take is the threat of lawsuits over people being exposed to things they are allergic to. The lazy server, kitchen staff or unlabeled food products are all risks that restaurant owners should be looking to minimize.
    Hmm maybe the insurance industry could be enough to push restaurant owners into doing this.

    BTW, I love the new allergen alerts on packaged food ingredient labels. I can see at a glance if something has wheat in it without having to dig through the list of strange named ingredients.

  25. jwarner132 says:

    Has anyone head of anyone having any luck with lawsuits when cross-contamination causes an allergic reaction? I’d think there would be a case for negligence or something.

    I know someone who has a allergy to certain types of shellfish, but is 100% ok with most other seafoods including regular fish. However once in a while she will have a reaction when eating fish, which I can only assume is caused by cross-contamination. If I buy Haddock for example at Stop & Shop, it is always fine, but at Market Basket, she always has a reaction. Shaws is a gamble. Applebee’s baked fish gave her a reaction once too. Right now it’s at the point where she refuses to eat any fish because she doesn’t want to risk having a reaction.

    I wish there was some way to make restaurants and grocery stores accountable for proper handling and/or providing notice to possible allergens in the food which may not be obvious.

  26. @ancientsociety: It means the facility makes multiple products, some of which contain said allergens, and they can’t guarentee that it didn’t end up in that specific product even thought it’s not made with milk, eggs, or whatever. They aren’t purposefully putting peanuts in the Hershey bar but there might be a little anyway.

    I think you have to assume it ended up in there, at least if you have severe allergies.

    I’m for more information. I also like Steel_Pelican‘s idea for the allergy menu. As far as cross contamination goes you ought to be able to inform the kitchen that you have allergies so they can change utensils and wipe down surfaces. Neither of which should require laws and wouldn’t if people didn’t suck.

  27. thomas_callahan says:

    Don’t take allergies seriously? That kind of dismissive response is irresponsible. They surveyed ER visits and I doubt there are many parents rushing kids to the ER with a rash unless they already know of an existing allergy. Try telling that to someone whose kid has been through it (like myself). And try going grocery shopping to find things that pass the test — pretty hard to do, even if it is a little better now than a couple of years ago. I wrote it off as just a rash at first, until he started vomiting and wheezing. But at any rate, even if it is a relatively small number, how hard is it to put a little more info on the package? Plenty of companies do already, and have for years, voluntarily — the sad part is that we have to get all legislative to make the rest of them list what’s actually in their products. We require the placement of fat and other strictly nutritional information on there so that people can tell that their cheez puffs are unhealthy (duh), or warning notices on cigarettes and alcohol (duh, again), but require a notice that would provide life-saving information that there is no other way for someone to find out or know ahead of time? No, that’s asking too much, might cut into profits… All in all I’ve actually been impressed with how the companies that are willing to put in the effort and most local restaurants deal with it (they’d rather lose a sale because someone can’t eat there than even possibly endanger you) but try asking at a national chain restaurant or certain food companies and you’re treated like a leper. And the “oh it’s just a rash, get over it” attitude seems to be increasingly the opinion of individuals. Like a friend of mine who was always very skeptical of my son’s peanut allergy — until the day her son was diagnosed with egg and shellfish allergies.

  28. mrwilson says:

    I really like Steel_Pelican’s suggestion that restaurants have a detailed list of ingredients for each item they serve available on request. A compromise on this would be that they at least disclose upon request the eight most common food allergens (which account for 90 percent of food allergies, and are: peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg, soy, fish, and shellfish), as packaged foods now do. For those, like my 2-year-old, who suffer from things like peanut allegies (which are potentially life-threatening), this is exceedingly important information, needless to say.

  29. kentuckienne says:

    It isn’t precisely an allergy, but I was diagnosed at age 25 with celiac sprue, an autoimmune disorder that keeps me from eating wheat, rye, barley, oats, or anything produced from those four grains. In the short term, eating something I shouldn’t makes me sick to my stomach. In the long term, it increases my risk for diseases like Type 1 diabetes and lupus. So I take what I eat seriously. Better food labeling would be marvelous — I’d love it if companies would list the grain used to create “modified food starch” or what was included in “natural flavors.” Even specifying the type of vinegar used would be helpful to me — I can’t have “vinegar,” but “wine vinegar” or “basalmic vinegar” is fine. And how hard is it to include an extra word?

  30. etinterrapax says:

    @kentuckienne: I was wondering if there would be any celiacs in the comments. My mother has it also, and she was thrilled when the food labels had to report wheat as an allergen, starting last January 1. But she still has a hard time in restaurants. Sometimes the servers act like she asked them to sever a finger when they have to check on whether a certain dish has gluten ingredients. And a lot of them have been jaded by Atkins dieters coming in and saying they were wheat-allergic when they were really making a choice.

  31. vmxeo says:

    Might as well throw my rant in here. Being diagnosed with allergy to dairy about 5 years ago, I’ve come to almost dread going to certain types of restaurants. Not surprisingly, I’ve had the worse experiences at Italian restaurants(and no, I don’t frequent them if I have a choice). I know which dishes should contain dairy and which shouldn’t, then I confirm it with the waiter, explaining my allergy and the consequences. A typical meal may involve me sending the main course back 2 or 3 times (why is there mozzarella cheese in my pasta bolonese?!?). More than a few times I’ve had to send the food back so many times I’ve finally given up and told the waiter to cancel it altogether, as every one else was done eating. One time, after sending the pasta back twice, the server came back to the table, went to set it down, paused, did a quick wrist move to flip the pasta around, then set it in front of me. Guess what I found in it? Another restaurant felt so bad they couldn’t get it right, they brought out a complementary dessert: – you guessed it- tiramisu.

    On the other hand, there are restaurants who’ve I’ve had good experiences. I ate at a seafood place in Boston not to long ago (Legal Seafood), and when I explained my dairy allergy, the manager herself came out with my food, explaining that it had been cooked completely without dairy using freshly cleaned utensils. The simple act of explaining to me the steps they took was rather reassuring. If I lived in Boston, I’d eat there more often. :)

  32. queen_elvis says:

    Go over to waiterrant.net and ask them how many restaurant customers tell obvious lies about being allergic to something. (or being “about to go into diabetic shock.”) That doesn’t excuse a cavalier attitude toward food allergies, but it certainly helps explain it.

  33. e-gadgetjunkie says:

    @balthisar: She’s allergic to anything that came from corn and even a few plants that are related to corn. About 5 years ago she had extensive tests because she was sick of all the symptoms. The list of her allergies is extensive, but corn is the worst (she starts with a rash, her ankles swell to the point that she can’t wear socks and she starts to vomit) and often the one that is the most missed. The thing she hates most is the vague labeling (such as on potato chips: may contain corn, sunflower seed or vegetable oil) or when she finds a food at a restaurant she can eat, only to have them change the ingredients without warning. She’s lucky though. Her doctor says she’d only be in serious danger if she ate large amounts of her allergens. At least whole kernels of corn are easy to see.

  34. Eukaryote says:

    As a vegetarian who dated a vegan, I have become accustomed to looking at food labels. It was really convenient for her, because a lot of times things would be labelled “Contains milk, wheat, and egg ingredients” so she knew what she was looking for.

    Being slightly less principled, and eating eggs and/or milk products, I thought it would be easy. So one day I picked up some Vegetable Soup, which had the “egg” ingredient warning.

    However, the first ingredient was Chicken Stock! (I ended up giving it to a food kitchen…)

    In the UK, everything that was vegetarian/vegan friendly was labeled with a V on it, and would say whether it was vegan or vegetarian…

    Granted, I’m not going to die from eating chicken stock, and I likely have done so a couple of times at restaurants, so please don’t think that I’m denying the seriousness of labels to those who truly need them. However, couldn’t this be added to the labels just the same?

  35. Lacclolith says:

    At the tender age of seven years old, I learned how to administer an epipen auto injector after my mom near as damn went into anaphylactic shock upon eating at a Chinese restaurant. She’d asked the waitress if Peanuts were used in the preparation of the dish and was told “Not that I’m aware of.”. If I hadn’t been taught how to use the injector, my mother would more than likely have been killed.

    To this very day, I can’t recall anything in my life being quite as horrifying as trying to help my own mother breathe while surrounded by gawking white people, not being offered a fuck’s bit of help.

    Needless to say, we don’t eat out much anymore.

  36. @kentuckienne: We have multiple celiacs in my family (tho not me). Outback Steakhouse, if you don’t know, has a celiac menu and they are FANTASTIC about training their servers/kitchen staff on it and they’re very sensitive to the needs of celiacs … and my anecdotal experience is that since the staff is so well-educated on celiac, they tend to be sensitive to other allergy needs as well and respond well to questions from patrons, etc.

  37. Firstborn Dragon says:

    I have a bad reaction to MSGs. Not life threating, but quite debilitating. The few times I’ve eaten it, I’ve gotten a SEVER migain. Which is serious bussness for me. Not only am I in sever pain, but I am sick to my stomack, and unable to walk or do anything really. It takes me out for at least 12 hours. During which time I try to sleep. If I’m lucky that is.

    I’m also vegetarian, which can be fun eating out. I’ve actually had to ask several questions about something on the menu that looks good, but then I find out there’s chicken or beef stock in, or something.

  38. Lee Jones says:

    My lovely wife is allergic to wheat gluten and soy, both diagnosed by a doctor (we didn’t believe the doctor at first…).

    Frankly, asking servers, or even managers, about ingredients is usually pointless. For the most part, they don’t know and (seemingly don’t care). If you are allergic to corn or soy and ask what kind of oil they use, you usually get the answer of “vegetable oil” (you then ask what kind… you get the idea). We usually research before hand.

    Some restaurant headquarters have ingredient lists on request, other (like TGIF) seem to have no idea. People who do not have life-threatening allergies (like Mark 2000) simply don’t get it.

    The big issue with eating out is cross-contamination. Even if you are clear that you are unable to have wheat of any kind and carefully explain that means no bread, no flour, no croûtons, you can still see servers picking off the croûtons because the kitchen forgot to leave them off.

    Exception: gourmet dining (you know, $40 or more a plate) where you actually have a chef on staff is much easier to work with. Chefs actually know their own ingredients. It’s easier on the ordering, but harder on the wallet.

    Starbucks is great; you leave a message, and they call back with the answer. The Starbucks CSR was very well-informed about their food ingredients. I assume they actually research before calling back. (Incidentally, all drinks at Starbucks are gluten-free unless you have them add java chips.)

    @Eyebrows McGee: Outback IS great about their gluten-free menu and take it pretty seriously.

    @Mark 2000: Don’t worry, I won’t take what you say seriously.

  39. kimmie says:

    E-GADGETJUNKIE: I too, have a serious corn allergy. I wish it were as easy as telling the waitress what I can’t have. My tomato and orange allergies are easy. But anything with corn syrup or corn starch (used as a thickener in so many things! forget about having anything with gravy or sauces) is far too difficult for many restaurants to think about. Odd how corn allergies are becoming more and more common.

    Back to the article… i think it should definitely be required to list ingredients/sources of food. Labelling an ingredient as “food starch” does not count, because it could be potato starch *or* corn starch. And things that are listed as whole wheat that *sometimes* contain cornmeal. Some days I think I’d be better off not eating anything at all.