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NPR Special Report: How Safe is the Food Supply?
Fighting Food-Based Allergies

audioListen to Allison Aubrey's report.

Aug. 17, 2001 -- Raising two toddlers is tough enough for any parent. But in Molly Craig's case, the job is even more demanding because one of her daughters, 2-year-old Claire, is severely allergic to peanuts, or any food that contains even the tiniest peanut particle.

Molly Craig and her 2-year-old daughter Claire
Molly Craig and her daughter Claire, who has a severe food allergy
Photo courtesy Molly Craig

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"This is nuts, but you have to check barcode," Craig tells NPR's Allison Aubrey as she checks Kellogg's cereals. "If it starts with K or N, it's made in a peanut-free plant. Otherwise it's not a peanut-safe plant." Ten years ago, parents like Craig might never have heard about such contamination. But there has been a huge increase in awareness of food allergies and their effects.

Each year, a couple of hundred people die from allergic reactions to common foods including nuts, eggs, and wheat, and tens of thousands more are hospitalized.

In the age of highly processed foods, there are dozens of ways common allergens can inadvertently slip into the food supply. "We found that in a survey, 25 percent of the samples that were not supposed to have peanuts in fact did have them," says Joe Levitt, director of Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the Food and Drug Administration. "That's dangerous."

"We found that in a survey, 25 percent of the samples that were not supposed to have peanuts in fact did have them."

Joe Levitt of the Food and Drug Administration

Another problem for people with food allergies is that labels often don't list trace ingredients. The food industry, with pressure from consumer groups, is now promising new labeling systems and is searching for better ways to avoid cross-contamination of allergens at processing plants.

But Craig says she will remain vigilant until there are ways for parents to test foods at home. At the grocery store, she often uses her cellphone to call each manufacturer on the spot to check its allergen policies. "Not for a moment can I let my guard down," she says.


Other Resources

For database of allergists and latest food industry recalls, visit Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

For more information on proposed new label by the food industry, go to Food Processors Association.

Also visit Food and Drug Administration's Web site for overall primer on the subject of food allergy.