Saturday, June 26, 2010

Form Letters

Recently a form letter response was posted on one of my forums and I have a few thoughts to share on the subject. 
More and more companies are developing formulaic answers to allergy questions.  The problem is that there are more than just 8 allergens in the world.  And even within those allergens, there is a wide variety of acceptable risk.  Until relatively recently, companies who cared could be depended on to respond with a thoughtful, researched response.  Other companies could be ferreted out by their lack of response and amusing replies (Such as my favorite: "I can't imagine why there'd be corn in cheese.  Where do you buy your cheese?")

Anyways.  Here is a typical form letter response from a big box company:

Thank you for taking the time to contact us regarding {product name}. We strive to maintain the highest quality products and appreciate your patronage.
(Company name} labeling declares major allergens (peanuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, tree nuts, and wheat) and we follow the U.S. FDA's regulations. We recognize the serious nature of the allergen issue and we strive to minimize risk.
Both major and minor ingredients of all products, as well as all processing procedures and equipment, are closely scrutinized and all potential allergen issues ... are declared on our labeling.
If a product contains gluten (ie. wheat, oats, barley, etc...) as a major component, we will include it in the ingredient list. For consumers concerned about the presence of trace amounts of gluten, we suggest avoiding products that include natural flavors or spices.
We assure you that strict manufacturing processes and procedures are in place and that all of our manufacturing facilities follow rigid allergen control programs that include staff training, segregation of allergen ingredients, production scheduling, and thorough cleaning and sanitation.
Thank you for your continued support. If we can be of further assistance, please feel free to contact us {Contact info}  Sincerely, Company representative

Now, at first glance, this letter seems very helpful.  It's well written, professional, and addresses both allergies and gluten.  They state that strict manufacturing processes are in place, reassuring the reader that quality and safety are paramount. 
Now take a second glance.  Note that only the top 8 allergens are addressed, "All potential allergen issues are declared..."  This means that they decide, within the guidelines drawn by FDA and FAAN, what exactly is an allergy issue.  Without consulting you, or your doctor. 
Note also that specific manufacturing processes are not addressed.  Is the facility dedicated allergen free?  Are there open vats of certain allergens?  What are the rigid allergen control programs? 
While I have no doubt they are thorough, and present no problem to the average allergic individual, this letter does not specifically address any specific concerns.  It's no better than a simple FAQ posted on a website. 
As an allergy sufferer, it's my job to weigh my risk benefit ratio in any individual food.  I don't have the convenience of farmland, or the money to create a self sustaining agricultural space.  This means I do need to rely upon the grocery store to provide my daily caloric needs.  Which, in turn, means that I need various companies to give me quality information on their products.  I need to know where corn, or gluten, or dairy, or any other specific ingredient, might be in those products.  I need to know where certain ingredients are derived.  I may need more information on packaging protocols. 
And I need my questions to be taken seriously, and answered by an individual who thinks for themselves, not a machine or someone clicking buttons that have been approved by the PR department. 
For those new to the world of food allergies responses like the above can be downright dangerous.  They give a false sense of security, and although they end with an entreaty to contact the company if there are further questions, they also give the individual a feeling that their answer should have been answered.  After all, the company has mysterious, but strict, manufacturing processes.  They train their employees.  They scrutinize for allergens.  And who better to recognize a specific allergen...the individual avoiding it,or the company cooking for a nation of buyers? 
Right.  The real answer isn't quite the one given. 

For those who are new to the world of food allergies, don't be discouraged by canned answers.  Ask, and keep asking.  Some answers can be found in FAQ and form letters, but many more require an individual answer.  And if your allergen isn't found on the top 8, you may need a direct response from someone who works with the product, not just someone in the office. 

1 comment:

Marty said...

I came across the same thing when Lay's decided to reformulate their kettle-cooked potato chips. Here is my blog post with the form e-mail I got:

Needless to say, I don't eat the Lay's kettle-cooked chips anymore.