Food producers face some of the strictest labeling guidelines in the consumer marketplace, as mislabeled products pose significant health risks for the general public. According to Food Allergy Research & Education – the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to food allergy research, awareness and advocacy – more than 170 foods have the potential to cause allergic reactions, which can range in severity from slight abdominal discomfort to anaphylactic shock. A vast majority of serious food allergy reactions in the U.S. are caused by just eight allergens, including milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish. It's estimated that around 32 million Americans are allergic to at least one type of food, with over 200,000 people requiring emergency medical care each year as a result.
"Around 32 million Americans are allergic to at least one type of food."
Labeling regulations have played a major role in addressing food allergy risks, as they establish clear rules for product packaging that keep consumers informed about high risk ingredients. Despite these regulatory measures, food producers are sometimes forced to recall large batches of their products due to oversights in their labeling review process. These incidents often lead to millions of dollars in lost revenue and open the company up to a range of legal repercussions. To get an idea for the potential impact of mislabeled foods, consider these high profile cases from February 2019:
Taylor Farms TX, Inc.
This popular producer of ready-to-eat food items issued a recall for approximately 2,100 pounds of chicken products that were incorrectly labeled as "Chile Relleno," as documented on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service website. The misbranding predominantly affected the company's "HEB Roasted Spaghetti Squash with Alfredo & Chicken" products, which are made using ingredients derived from wheat. Taylor Farms TX, Inc. discovered the mistake in early February and took immediate action to recall all products that bore the establishment number "EST. 34733" to prevent health complications resulting from the undeclared allergens.
VICS Acquisition LLC
According to an FSIS news release, this Texas-based cold storage and food packing company was forced to issue a recall for around 99,975 pounds of chicken products because the packaging did not mention that eggs were used as an ingredient. The oversight impacted a number of different food items distributed by VICS Acquisition LLC, including its "happi foodi Bloody Mary Inspired Chicken," "Southeast Grocers Brand Marsala Chicken" and "Southeast Grocers Brand Mediterranean Herb Chicken." The affected products were shipped to retail locations nationwide after the company failed to realize the mistake during its label review process.
J Bar B Foods
This small food producer from Weimar, Texas, issued a notice of recall for approximately 51,188 pounds of ready-to-eat cheddar smoked sausage products following a misbranding and undeclared allergen mix-up. The company mistakenly labeled its "Cheddar Smoked Sausage" items as "Original Smoked Sausage" before shipping the products to retail locations throughout Texas. The FSIS announced that the mislabeled product contains milk, a known allergen, fearing that consumers sensitive to dairy would suffer adverse health effects as a result of the mistake. The incorrect labels were discovered by a retail store employee who pulled the products off the shelves and immediately notified J Bar B Foods.
Food Labeling Approval and Review
Before food products can be distributed to retailers, companies must first obtain official labeling approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The agency is responsible for reviewing the labels and packaging for food products to ensure important allergy-related information is present and legible. Some of the required features that food producers must include on their labels are:
- Inspection legends
- Ingredient statements
- Handling statements
- Product names
- Net weights
- Nutrition facts
This information is vitally important, as it provides consumers with a variety of indicators to judge whether a product poses a risk to their personal wellbeing. Food producers are responsible for preparing a final version of their packaging that aligns with USDA policies and regulations, while also conforming to a series of strict recordkeeping procedures. For example, companies that manufacture food products must create a record of any changes they make to their labels, whether or not they require approval from the USDA's Labeling and Program Delivery Staff.
The review phase is a critical step in the labeling process, as it gives manufacturers the opportunity to double-check their packaging and assure that all the required information is present. Cutting corners only increases the chances that food items will be mislabeled and relevant allergens will remain undeclared. One way food producers can avoid these oversights is to use standardized labeling evaluation documents to guide their review, such as those provided by the Accredited Certifiers Association.
Failure to meet the FSIS's labeling standards can result in a number of enforcement actions, including fines and class-action litigation. While these severe cases are somewhat rare, food producers must take steps to bolster their labeling infrastructure to avoid damaging oversights.