I like to call companies in my spare time so that I can ask questions about how they manufacture their foods.
Listening to the alluring voice of a robotic automated service makes my heart skip a beat. The adrenaline starts pumping as I type out a bunch of numbers in an attempt to reach a real human being.
Experiencing my blood coursing passionately through my veins as I question a customer service representative makes me feel so alive!
HA! I’m joking. That was a total joke using my best sarcasm.
If you are like me, calling companies about food allergies is probably not at the top of your list on what constitutes a good time. Because it STINKS. Let’s just call it what it is, which is ridiculousness.
Incredibly, for some food allergy families, calling companies to inquire about manufacturing procedures is just a normal part of their weekly, or monthly, routine.
I am so over-the-moon proud of you if you are a parent that is currently navigating this situation. It takes a great deal of time and dedication to keep track of all that information and it’s proof that you are a PHENOMENAL person.
Well done, good and faithful parent.
I hope this blog post can provide you with helpful suggestions! We also include a handy-dandy calling guide you can reference when reaching out to companies about their food production procedures.
Why do we even need to call companies?
To be completely honest, I did not call companies at all within the first year of my child’s food allergy diagnosis. Why? Because I didn’t know I needed to call.
Our allergist walked us through the test results of blood work and skin pricks. He told us to avoid the allergens and sent us home. Devastated, I continually searched the internet for information on what this meant for my child.
Eventually, one subject that I became aware of was the risk of cross-contact in processed foods.
What is Cross-Contact?
Cross-contact is a real thing that can occur in manufacturing. Say that peanut butter cookies were run through a production line first thing every day. At noon, they stop and switch over to making a raisin cookie. Before switching out those 2 products, the manufacturing staff run acid washes on the production lines and follow cleaning protocols.
For some, based on their sensitivity level, this is enough reassurance that the raisin cookie will be free from peanut proteins. However, for some individuals, their reactions to the proteins are extremely sensitive and the risk would be too high. For more on cross-contact, check out our blog post, “What in the World is Food Cross-Contact?“
I had to circle back to our allergist to ask if I needed to avoid shared lines with my daughter’s allergens. He strongly advised that we avoid shared lines with peanuts, but wasn’t as concerned about the sesame (that changed when her blood test results quadrupled).
IMPORTANT: Always consult your allergist and ask clearly if you need to avoid shared lines with your child’s allergen. This will be the first step you take in order to determine if calling companies is even something you need to do.
If your allergist does not advise you to avoid shared lines, then that is awesome! Lauren and I celebrate with you!
On the other hand, if you are told to avoid shared lines, you now have a few more things to think through if you want to buy processed food.
Because that food may not be safe.
By law, companies DO NOT have to state anywhere on their food labels that a product was produced on shared lines with the Top 8 allergens regulated by the FDA. This also means shared lines with a Non-Top 8 allergen would not have to be disclosed either.
The ONLY thing companies are required to report on is whether or not their product actually contains a Top 8 allergen as an ingredient.
In 2004, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) was passed. To read the specifics about the regulations that companies have to follow, click HERE.
Also, check out Lauren’s blog post about Food Labels and Food Allergies to understand more about manufacturing.
If your allergist tells you to avoid shared lines, that is because it potentially only takes one tiny food protein to trigger an allergic reaction in highly sensitive individuals.
Though numerous companies have strict allergen cleaning protocols in place, they cannot 100% guarantee that their products are free of allergens if produced on shared lines.
What does that mean for you?
You will probably need to call companies connected to the products you plan on feeding your child if they do not explicitly state that they use dedicated facilities. Why? Because the product may have been produced on shared lines with your child’s allergens.
I know. It sucks.
I won’t sugar coat it; it’s a lot of work upfront. But you will be so glad you called all these companies when you see your list of brands you trust continue to grow!
My suggestion is that you start your own “Safe Foods” list for your child as you call companies. You can use a Word document or Excel sheet to keep track of the products. Or you can download our free template!
How to Get Started
If you’re brand new to managing your child’s allergen, the first place to start is in your own fridge and pantry. Check all ingredient labels to see if the allergen is an actual ingredient in those products.
If so, you’ll probably want to store them in a safe location away from your kiddo’s reach. Some families just throw those products away because it makes them feel better to not have the allergen in their home. Or, if you are so inclined, you could totally burn the products in your front yard bonfire style. I’ll bring the marshmallows!
But in all seriousness, a key topic to discuss with your allergist is whether or not to keep the allergen in your home. A lot goes into this decision. For example, variables like child age and developmental stage, food needs of siblings, sensitivity to the allergen, are all factors to consider.
Real life example – Lauren’s allergist advised removing peanuts from the home after her baby’s peanut allergy diagnosis, but wanted her to keep dairy in the home after the dairy allergy diagnosis because her baby could tolerate milk in baked goods.
Determining how you will handle allergens in the home, along with going through your pantry and fridge to determine if any allergens are already present in products are key first steps.
Next, Get Organized
Here’s how I decided to organize myself through the process of calling food companies. I prioritized foods in 3 categories so that I could narrow down which companies I should call first.
- FOOD GROUP 1: I determined which foods were a necessity for our daily nutritional intake as a family (i.e. milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, bread, pasta, rice, everyday spices). I called these food companies first.
For example, I contacted Horizon Organic to ask if their milk was processed on the same manufacturing lines with peanuts and sesame seeds. I needed to know that ASAP since my daughter needs milk in her daily diet.
- FOOD GROUP 2: We then decided which foods were secondary products. These were typically items we used in our cooking 2-3 times a week. A few examples would be BBQ sauce, mayo, salad dressings, pasta sauces, etc. We set these products aside to call after our primary foods had been checked.
- FOOD GROUP 3: Lastly, we set aside products that we could wait a few weeks to hear back on. For our family, those were items we hardly ever used.
Examples could be sugar, baking soda, starch, sprinkles, food coloring, cocoa powder, etc. You can also choose to email these companies instead of calling.
As you contact food companies, keep track of the products that you have confirmed are safe for your child to eat. Again, you can use a Word document or Excel sheet to keep track of products. Or you can download our free template!
How Do I Contact the Company?
My family manages food allergies to sesame seeds, peanuts, and eggs. When I contact companies, I need to know if the manufactured product was produced on shared lines with those allergens.
Phone numbers for customer service are usually listed on the back of a product. Moreover, there is usually a website which should have an email for you to contact if you prefer.
Prepare yourself for the fact that this process might take weeks. Most customer service representatives can tell you a canned reply on what their company’s allergen protocol is, but many will not know if a non-Top 8 allergen is actually in the facility or processed on the lines.
Be ready with the name of the product and the series of numbers beneath the bar code scan. You might even need to provide the expiration date and the codes listed next to the date.
They will collect that information from you and tell you that they need to resource your question out to staff that actually work in the facility in which it was processed.
Lastly, it could take over a week to hear a reply. So just a heads up, you may not get to feed your child that specific product immediately.
What Questions Do You Ask a Company?
I came up with a general phone call script that I refer back to in order to make sure the customer service representative from that company clearly understands what I am asking,
It sounds a bit like this:
- Customer Service: “How can I help you today?”
- Me: “Hi, I’m calling to check a particular product for specific allergen information. Please let me know when you are ready for the bar code information and my allergen information.”
- Customer Service: “I’m ready.”
- Me: “Okay, the product is _______ and the bar code number is ______.” (They may also need the expiration date and lot number from you.) “I need to know if this product was produced on shared lines with peanuts, sesame seeds, or eggs.”
- Customer Service: “Let me confirm with you that you want to check if this product was produced on the same lines as peanuts, sesame seeds, and eggs.” (They usually repeat it back to you because the calls are recorded and they want to cover all their bases.)
- Me: “Yes, that is correct.”
- Customer Service: “Okay, thank you. Let me place you on a brief hold and I will find this information for you.”
What If You Don’t Get a Straight Answer From the Company?
After calling, most companies can give you a definitive “yes” or “no” answer about shared lines with your kiddo’s allergen.
However, there will be times that you get “non” answers. For example, a company has told me that they cannot find the information I’ve requested or they will say, “Um, I think it should be okay.”
When that happens, that’s my cue to immediately ask to be transferred to a supervisor that can give me a more concrete answer. I refuse to feed my child a product that someone “thinks” should be safe.
Occasionally, you’ll even run into a company that gives evasive answers instead of answering your question directly.
Here is an example:
- Me: “I need to know if this product was produced on shared lines with peanuts, sesame seeds, or eggs.”
- Customer Service: “Let me confirm that you want to check if this product contains peanuts, sesame seeds, and eggs.”
- Me: “No, that is not what I am asking. I need to know if the product was produced on shared lines with those allergens.”
- Customer Service: “No, our company is required to follow FDA protocols for declaring the Top 8 allergens in our products.”
- Me: “Yes, I understand the FDA laws. However, you are not required to disclose shared lines on your labels. That is why I am calling. Are you able to confirm over the phone that this product was not manufactured on shared lines with my allergens? If not, I need to be transferred to your supervisor.”
Do you see how this interaction could be very confusing for someone brand new to calling companies to inquire about food allergens? When the company makes that FDA law statement, it sounds like they are saying, “No, our product wasn’t produced with your allergens.”
You have to listen closely to what the representative says because they might not be answering your question directly.
Allergen Policies from Companies
Additionally, as you gain experience in calling food companies, you will quickly discover that some companies have GREAT allergen policies or allergen statements. And others just won’t.
For example, McCormick has a very clear and concise allergen statement concerning their spice and herb products. In fact, their allergen policy is stated on their website and is also recorded for all customers to hear if they call the company directly.
Not only is McCormick incredibly forthcoming with general allergen information, but their customer service representatives are also well trained in finding additional allergen information if you still have concerns.
Companies like this make us allergy families feel like we are winning!
But sadly, not every company you call will be willing to give you this type of detailed information. I’ve called companies and been told not to buy their products if we have food allergies. And we don’t.
I also politely inform that company that choosing to not disclose their manufacturing protocols, or blatantly telling me not to buy their products, is a huge disappointment. There are over 32 million people in America with food allergies. They are missing out on a ton of loyal customers because of their choice to not be more informed about food allergies.
Do I Really Have to Call Every Company?
The short answer is that it depends on your child’s needs. Again, the first place to start is to confirm with your allergist if you need to be concerned about shared lines.
Some companies will have their allergen protocol listed on their website. I check there first. It can usually be found in the FAQ section. For example, the Tillamook Brand spells out each of their production processes for their products on their website so I can tell from there if they have shared lines or not. Check it out here.
If your child is allergic to an allergen or allergens that are Top 8, you will find companies that have dedicated facilities from the Top 8. That’s It fruit bars are an example and they clearly label that there are no Top 8 allergens in their facilities. I don’t have to call them because they cannot have shared lines if the allergen is not in the facility.
If you are managing a food allergen that is not Top 8, it is less common to find dedicated facilities, but an increasing amount of companies are including Top 12 or Top 14 allergens in their dedicated facilities.
The other good news is there are people actively working to make this easier for you! Snack Safely is a fantastic resource for you to have. They vet the manufacturing process for you and then create snack guides by allergen. This way you know what the manufacturing process is and can make the decision for your family.
Yes, this is a lot to handle.
If you are in the beginning stages, you might be feeling pretty worried. What do you feed your child in the meantime? Unprocessed foods are typically the safest (depending on your allergy). Examples would be: raw fruits, vegetables, and fresh meat cuts. Leaning on fresh produce as much as possible might take the edge off the anxiety.
To be honest, we still cook mainly fresh and have cut out a lot of processed foods!
But yes, it is a great deal of work to call these companies and listen intently to the answers they give you. Even my mom commented on how overwhelming it feels to manage all the information.
She once asked me if there was a script or guide she could follow. She didn’t want to get sidetracked while on the phone. I thought that was a genius idea!
So here is a FREE GUIDE DOWNLOAD, straight from my super smart momma!
I hope it proves to be a helpful guide that you can reference when calling food companies.
You are an allergy parent. You are AMAZING. Don’t forget that as you walk this sometimes very difficult path. No matter what you come up against, you are now a part of an amazing community of food allergy families. We are on your side!
Keep on keeping on!