Granola Bars, Hives and Cross-Contact

Managing my son’s food allergies often involves an assessment of trust. Do I trust a restaurant to serve a safe meal that’s free of cross-contact? Will a crèche (child care provider) know how to identify and respond to an allergic reaction? When I buy prepared foods at the grocery store, I also put my trust in the manufacturer to fully disclose allergens on its labels. Even though Switzerland has requirements in place for labeling allergens as intended and unintended ingredients, I still recommend contacting the manufacturer if you have any doubts, as I learned most recently from our experience with Coop’s chocolate-coated granola bars.

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Soft Snack Granola Bars

I first discovered Coop’s apricot “Soft Snack” granola bars last year, and they quickly became one of my son’s favorite treats. Then, I noticed a chocolate-coated cereal bar from the same product line. From the start, I thought the product wouldn’t be safe. Swiss-made chocolate always seems to carry a warning about potential traces of milk, eggs or almonds. I read through the ingredients and the allergy declaration, but everything looked okay for my son.

Back at home, I served the bars to my son. On at least two occasions, he developed some hives around his mouth. Concerned about the potential for cross-contact with his allergens—even though it wasn’t indicated on the package—I stopped buying them.

Last month, I finally decided to contact Coop and ask about unintended ingredients for the chocolate “Soft Snack” granola bars, as well as the “Bio Crunchy Choco Riegel” bars. As always, Coop responded thoughtfully and promptly to my questions. For its two granola bars made with chocolate, a Coop consumer service representative wrote in an email that:

“…we cannot guarantee that these products are 100% free from milk, eggs and almonds because our manufacturer has a factory which processes gluten, eggs, milk, nuts and soy. This means that products may still contain small traces below the legal limits unless otherwise declared on the packaging (e.g. gluten free).”


“May Contain Traces of…” 

Even though traces of my son’s allergens may unintentionally be included in these granola bars, Coop wrote that the amounts fall below the limits in which Swiss regulation requires a company to list them on the label: 1 gram for each kilogram of the finished product. (For more information about Swiss labeling requirements, see Ordonnance du DFI sur l’étiquetage et la publicité des denrées alimentaires, Art. 8). At the same time, manufacturers can voluntarily label their food products to indicate the potential presence of allergens, even if the unintended amounts fall below these limits. For these granola bars, Coop has decided not to include such a statement.

I emailed Coop last week to see if they would consider adding a voluntary statement about potential traces of allergens to these cereal bars. In addition, I inquired as to whether any of their food products include such a voluntary statement, even if the amount of unintended allergens falls below the Swiss limits. Yesterday afternoon, I received the following statement in an email from Coop:

“Whenever possible, we avoid the use of warnings about traces of allergens, as we believe that such warnings unnecessarily restrict the choice available to allergy sufferers. For this reason, manufacturers are only required to state unintentional contamination with allergens in the product information (which we use for the declaration) if they exceed the legally defined limits. Many manufacturers also specify traces of some allergens that are well below the limit, which we then include in the declarations on the product.”

While I want Coop to be absolutely clear about what allergens could be included in its food products, I can also understand their rationale. Blanket allergy statements like those recently seen at Tesco in the UK, for example, do not help consumers.

I think it’s great that Switzerland has set limits for labeling unintended allergens, but it’s still up to manufacturers to include a “may contain” or “shared equipment” statement for products that fall below these limits. This leads to inconsistent practices among manufacturers, which can be challenging for consumers. For example, an overly cautious allergy warning may unnecessarily limit the options for consumers. On the other hand, without full disclosure of unintended allergens, a consumer may be putting themselves at risk of an allergic reaction.

In my opinion, voluntary labeling of unintended allergens doesn’t always meet the needs of people living with severe food allergies—for which even these trace amounts can sometimes be harmful. Therefore, if you have to avoid incredibly small amounts of allergens and have questions about food products and cross-contact—whether its Coop or Migros or any other grocery store—trust your instincts. Don’t hesitate to contact the manufacturers directly, just to make sure—for your own safety and peace of mind.

I’m curious to hear from others on the “may contain traces” labeling issue. How often do you contact manufacturers? What are the labeling requirements where you live for unintended allergens? Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts and comments. Bon week-end, all.

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