Since 2006, it has been much easier for people allergic to certain foods to avoid packaged products that contain them. This is because a federal law requires that the labels of most packaged foods marketed in the U.S. disclose in simple-to-understand terms when they are made with a major food allergen.
Eight foods, and ingredients containing their proteins, are defined as “major food allergens.” These foods account for 90 percent of all food allergies:
- Fish, such as bass, flounder, or cod
- Crustacean shellfish, such as crab, lobster, or shrimp
- Tree nuts, such as almonds, pecans, or walnuts
The law allows manufacturers a choice in how they identify the specific “food source names,” such as “milk,” “cod,” “shrimp,” or “walnuts,” of the major food allergens on the label. They must be declared in one of the following:
- The ingredient list, such as “casein (milk)” or “nonfat dry milk.”
- A separate “Contains” statement, such as “Contains milk,” placed immediately after or next to the ingredient list.
So first look for the “Contains” statement. If your allergen is listed, put the product back on the shelf. If there is no “Contains” statement, it’s very important to read the entire ingredient list to see if your allergen is present. If you see its name even once, it’s back to the shelf for that food too.
“Contains” and “May Contain” Have Different Meanings
If a “Contains” statement appears on a food label, it must include the food source names of all major food allergens used as ingredients. For example, if “whey,” “egg yolks,” and a “natural flavor” that contained peanut proteins are listed as ingredients, the “Contains” statement must identify the words “milk,” “egg,” and “peanuts.”
Some manufacturers voluntarily include a “may contain” statement on their labels when there is a chance that a food allergen could be present. A manufacturer might use the same equipment to make different products. Even after cleaning this equipment, a small amount of an allergen (such as peanuts) that was used to make one product (such as cookies) may become part of another product (such as crackers). In this case, the cracker label might state “may contain peanuts.”
Be aware that the “may contain” statement is voluntary. You still need to read the ingredient list to see if the product contains your allergen.
When In Doubt, Leave It Out
Manufacturers can change their products’ ingredients at any time, so it’s a good idea to check the ingredient list every time you buy the product—even if you have eaten it before and didn’t have an allergic reaction.
If you’re unsure about whether a food contains any ingredient to which you are sensitive, don’t buy the product, or check with the manufacturer first to ask what it contains. We all want convenience, but it’s not worth playing Russian roulette with your life or that of someone under your care.
For more information, check out Food Allergies: What You Need to Know.
Some of the questions we hear most frequently at the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline include “Is food safe if left out overnight?” and “Should I wash chicken before cooking it?” We know people aren’t sitting at a computer when these questions occur, and they often need the answers right away.
Just in time for summer grilling season—one of the busiest times of year for the Hotline—I’m happy to announce that our virtual food safety representative, Ask Karen, is now available in mobile format. That means you can access Karen's extensive knowledge base about safely handling, cooking, and storing food directly from your smart phone, anywhere and anytime your phone can access the Internet.
Mobile Ask Karen has all the same features as Ask Karen on your computer. Only now, she can answer your food safety questions at the grocery store, in your kitchen, or at your barbecue grill. Hopefully, by sending Karen out to picnics, farmers markets, and backyard cookouts via people’s smart phones, she’ll be able to reduce the number of foodborne illnesses that usually increase in the summer months.
Using your iOS (iPhone and iPad) or Android device, you can chat live with a food safety expert on weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. EST, and the web-based app provides the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline number (1-888-MPHotline) in case you want to speak to someone directly.
If it’s midnight, however, and you’re not sure if you should snack on the pizza that’s been sitting on your countertop since dinnertime, the Ask Karen database is available 24/7 and has the answers to nearly 1,500 food safety questions. Chances are, someone else has faced a similar dilemma, and a solution can be found by searching for a few keywords.
Just like we try to do with this blog, government food safety agencies are trying to get as much food safety advice to the public as we can. Knowing how much time everyone (we do it too!) spends on their smart phones, it only makes sense that Ask Karen should be available from such a widely used tool.
Take Karen with you! To start using Mobile Ask Karen now, go to m.AskKaren.gov, or scan the QR code into your iOS or Android-powered device:
Spring has long been the time of year for annual spring cleaning projects around the home. When it comes to safe food handling, however, everything that comes in contact with food must be kept clean all year long — including the refrigerator.
You probably keep your refrigerator at home clean, but the office refrigerator may be a problem because it’s typically a shared responsibility. Here are some tips that may help.
Keep it at a safe temperature — 40 °F or lower
- Refrigeration slows bacterial growth. Bacteria exist everywhere in nature. They are in the soil, air, water, and the foods we eat. When they have nutrients (food), moisture, and favorable temperatures, they grow rapidly, increasing in numbers to the point where some types of bacteria can cause illness.
- Bacteria grow most rapidly in the range of temperatures between 40 and 140 °F, the "Danger Zone," some doubling in number in as little as 20 minutes. A refrigerator set at 40 °F or below will protect most foods.
- Appliance thermometers for refrigerators are specifically designed to provide accuracy at cold temperatures and can be purchased at the local hardware store.
Keep it clean
- If your office doesn’t already have a schedule for cleaning, why not make it a habit to throw out perishable foods left in the refrigerator at least once a week? A general rule of thumb for refrigerator storage for cooked leftovers is 4 days.
- Wipe up spills immediately before they turn into a major cleaning job. Clean surfaces thoroughly with hot, soapy water; then rinse.
- Refer to the Storage Times for the Refrigerator and Freezer chart for storage guidelines of perishable products in the refrigerator. Print a copy and post on the refrigerator door as a reminder for all who use it.
- To keep the refrigerator smelling fresh and help eliminate odors, place an opened box of baking soda on a shelf. Avoid using solvent cleaning agents, abrasives, and all cleansers that may impart a chemical taste to food or ice cubes, or cause damage to the interior finish of the refrigerator. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
Share the responsibility
- Do you feel like you are the only one concerned about the cleanliness of the refrigerator? Make it a food safety issue! Not everyone may realize the importance of keeping all food contact surfaces, like the refrigerator, clean. Because bacteria are everywhere, cleanliness is a major factor in preventing foodborne illness.
- Post this blog on the office refrigerator. Maybe your coworkers will get the hint.
Share your tips with us
Do you have tips for sharing the responsibility and keeping the office refrigerator clean? If so, please click Add a Comment and share your tips with us.
If you have questions, feel free to contact us at the Hotline (1-888-674-6854 toll-free) or online at AskKaren.gov (English and Spanish).