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Got the following email following up on the food safety stories on which we have been focusing:

As the parent of a child with a food allergy, I can attest to the frustration and confusion that comes with navigating allergen statements, let alone cross contamination in a restaurant.  Our child is allergic to three tree nuts, not all tree nuts, and has an epi pen.  An ice cream shop with a communal water bin for scoopers is our worst nightmare.  Was the milkshake machine really thoroughly cleaned after the Nutella (contains hazelnuts) milkshake was made?

There are really two parts to a product’s allergen statement: what the product itself contains and potential cross contamination ingredients in the plant.  The first part is regulated by the federal government and requires manufacturers to clearly state if an item contains one of the 9 major allergens.  Quick callout here that wheat is a major allergen, but gluten (found in other grains like barley) is not.  Gluten free labeling is not required.  Just because wheat isn’t called out, does not mean the item is gluten free. 

The federal government has no regulations for the second part, and it is truly the wild wild west.  You see statements like may contain, made in a plant that processes, made on shared equipment, made on a dedicated line free of and the list goes on.  When it comes to tree nuts, I have seen labels that identify specific nuts to a blanket tree nut statement.  Manufacturers add it to minimize their liability, but the consumer is left confused.  Was the allergen ingredient stored in a common area, separate area, used on a separate line in a different room, a separate line in the same room, the same line?

The answer to these questions is important when determining if a product is safe to consume.  When I see these warnings, I have no idea which tree nuts are in the plant and how they interacted with the product I would like to purchase.  For example, regular Snickers bars carry a may contain/processed in a plant with tree nut warning.  Mars also makes an almond Snickers (a tree nut my child can have), which is probably the tree nut being referred to, but I have no way of knowing.  I even checked their website and called customer service.  No one could give me an answer.

We’ve erred on the side of caution and do not allow our child to eat Snickers, even though eating peanuts is not an issue.  Our school follows this policy as well, which means they will not serve our child items like buns, birthday cupcakes, birthday cookies, and bagels.  Over the past few years, I have come to realize being food allergy free is a luxury most of us take for granted.  We found a local nut free bakery, and our child was ecstatic that they could pick out anything in the store.

On another subject, I got this email from MNB reader Erin Ball:

I have enjoyed MNB for several years now. I'm reaching out to offer another perspective on some of your recent comments on ultra-processed food. In general, I love your critical and balanced eye on media coverage across the retail and food space. That said, I feel like you are not applying those assets to your read of coverage of UPF.

I am a food industry person, yes, but I am also a consumer, with the health and nutrition needs of my family always top of mind. I do have questions about UPF, and, especially as I wear the mom-feeding-kids hat, I would love for those questions to be addressed sooner rather than later. But in my seat as Executive Director at Grain Foods Foundation, I know that the headlines are WAY ahead of the science, especially science that reveals causation, not merely association.

The conversation is much bigger than the media is currently representing, and the rhetoric is actually doing a disservice to public health. Some of the implications of adherence to NOVA's classification of foods and resulting recommendations are in fact "racist, classist, and sexist," in the words of a food scientist and nutritionist with whom I work. More research is needed - desperately - to explore the real impacts of these foods, but this research must go beyond epidemiological data analysis, which may expose associations but does no good in establishing causal relationships between UPFs and health.

I did a piece last week lamenting how the federal government is mandating that states stop being clever or cute with their highway signs, prompting MNB reader Kathy Williams to write:

I was both sad and annoyed to hear about this road sign change. These signs  often broke up the monotony driving on long trips or served as an added message around the holidays when more people travel by car.  Here are some of my favorites:

•  Visiting In-laws?  Slow down and get there late!

•  4 I's in Mississippi; 2 I's on the road!

•  Spring Breakers: Does Mom approve of your driving?

•  Camp in the Woods   Not in the Left Lane!

•  Fans don't let Friends drive Blitzed! 

Last week we took note of an Axios report that "one San Francisco supervisor wants to regulate grocery store closures in the city to ensure local communities are not blindsided … The proposal is an effort to ensure food security throughout the city and is a direct response to Safeway's announcement and subsequent reversal of its decision to close its Fillmore supermarket, the only full-service grocery store in the neighborhood, in March."

I said I wasn't sure how retailers could be stopped from closing stores that are not viable, which prompted MNB reader Aaron Algazy to write:

I'm glad you agree that making a store stay open longer than necessary is a bad thing.  Having your government tell you you can't close, is extreme overreach.  

San Francisco is having major issues keeping a lot of businesses open.  Los Angeles is having the same issue.  Funny thing, the DA that was in SF is now in LA.  Coincidence?  When you have a revolving jail door, it doesn't help (A great example of a revolving jail door, a 13 year old kid, stole a car, used that car to smash into a bakery/convenience store's front door and a mob of teens stole and ransacked the business.  A few hours later, the same 13 year old was caught with a few others robbing another convenience store).  

When a company has to lock up half the store due to theft, it doesn't make sense or dollars.

If the city government wants to keep businesses open, they need to protect the businesses.  I haven't seen a store closure due to just bad sales in many years.  Most, if not all, are due to shrink.  And that shrink is mostly theft and vandalism.  

Last Friday I shared a video in which, while demonstrating how to make a parmesan chicken dish, chef Jamie Oliver and writer Mark Bittman had an exchange that I think perfectly served as a mantra for how food retailers should approach their business.

But one MNB reader saw something else:

I enjoyed the video and the easy recipe, but I am concerned about the food safety hazard Jamie Oliver created when after cooking the dish. He promptly puts the fully cooked chicken breast onto the same butcher block which was used to prepare the raw chicken breast. This is an example of how people get sick at home, cross contaminating the fully cooked meat with the raw juices. Ironically, Jamie mentions consumers fears of salmonella by consumers which results in over cooking part of the irregular shaped chicken breast. They missed a big opportunity to communicate how to avoid cross contamination.

And from another reader:

Speaking of how a retailer can help like the video, not only providing recipes of how to take a can of beans and what you can do with that..but there's another route that I am quite familiar with.

I have used Home Chef (which Kroger now owns), for several years for 2-3 meals per week. If you have investigated this venue you know its not a prepared meal. It's all the ingredients that you need. You just need to prepare them and cook. First, it teaches me how to prepare. Second, how to cook. And once you start it becomes fairly easy. They only send exactly what you need for that meal so you don't have excess prep items. Second, the recipes are so great at guiding you to the end. And third the flowers, the sauces, the quality of produce and meat is top notch.

The rest of the week I go back to my other recipes and meals but many times I borrow from what I learned on spices and sauces from Home Chef. And once enrolled any recipe for any meal is available so you don't necessarily have to buy that particular meal from them.

This is what a grocer needs to do.  Teach people how to assemble ingredients and how to cook.