Want to Know What’s in Your Food? Don’t Ask Heinz!

My son is very allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and sesame. Nuts are required by law to be listed, but sesame currently is not. We’ve gotten quite adept at calling companies about sesame as an ingredient, but disturbingly companies do not need to tell you without a doctor’s note … according to Heinz at least!heinz

A quick bit of background: legally speaking, manufacturers are only required to denote on the label if a food product contains one or more of the “Top 8” allergens. That is, if a product contains milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat or soy, it must be noted. Unfortunately, sesame supposedly is the ninth most common allergy, just missing the cutoff. Sesame can also often be hidden as “natural flavor” or “spices”. It means that as parents, we need to play food detective; missing sesame as an ingredient in food we give our son could cause a life-threatening reaction.

I emailed Heinz recently to find out if their ketchup and other products were safe for my son to eat. We normally shop at Wegmans, a local grocery store that labels for sesame voluntarily on all their in-house foods. As a result, we usually buy their house brands, but there is no Wegmans near my parents and other family members of ours. We want to be able to give them a list of brands they can comfortably keep on hand to serve our son, and since Heinz makes a variety of condiments and tomato-based products, we needed to know if any of their foods were safe.

This was the email I sent to Heinz:

I have a question about ingredients and food allergies; my son has severe allergies to tree nuts, peanuts, and sesame, and we are trying to determine if Heinz foods would be safe for him to consume.

Since sesame is not required to be labelled, is there any way you could provide me with a list of products that do/do not contain sesame, and whether there is a risk of cross-contamination with any of your products?

Thank you!

And this was the response I received back from Heinz (I’ve bolded the parts I found particularly offensive to my intelligence):

Dear Carly,

Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to explain our manufacturing processes pertaining to food allergens.

Because we understand how difficult it is for consumers with food allergies to find ‘safe’ processed foods, we clearly list the FDA Top 8 Major Allergens on our ingredient panels if they are present in our products.

The FDA specifies the Top 8 Major Allergens are as follows:  Soy; Wheat; Peanuts; Eggs; Dairy; Tree Nuts; Shellfish & Crustaceans; and Fish. These ingredients are listed specifically within our ingredient statements.  They are also called out in bold print underneath the ingredient statement.  Older packaging will only reflect these allergens within the ingredient statement itself rather than restating the information in bold print.

Because recipes are not patentable, the terms ‘natural flavorings’ and ‘spices’ refer to dried spices and seasonings, which are not disclosed on the label for proprietary reasons.  MSG is always called out in the ingredient statement and not hidden within natural flavorings or spices.

We do not list if products are run on lines that also produce products that contain allergens such as nuts or wheat.  The reason for this is that we follow very strictly HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) guidelines for food production.  Heinz utilizes HACCP systems to monitor specific steps in food production to identify and eliminate potential safety problems.  This means that products containing an allergen are scheduled to run last, at the end of the production cycle. This is then followed by a complete breakdown and thorough cleaning of all areas including validation of those cleaning processes, thus eliminating the possibility of cross-contamination.

However, if you would like to have your physician fax us a request on their letterhead with a contact phone number detailing the specific ingredient(s) in question.  They can fax that request to: (412) 237-5291.

We hope you will find this information to be helpful.  Please be aware that recipes and formulas may change and the best possible source of information is the ingredient statement. Always make sure you read the label every time you buy any product. If you have any further questions, please call us between 8:30 am and 6:00 pm Monday through Friday at 1-800-255-5750.

Heinz Consumer Resource Center

There are a number of stupendously dumb and condescending things in this email from Heinz. For starters, they thought it would be helpful to give me a lecture on the top allergens, even though I didn’t ask about top allergens. Then they refused to tell me a simple yes/no about sesame in their products because it is “proprietary”. However, if I would like to share my son’s medical status with Heinz, they’ll give me a yes/no…but they can’t guarantee they won’t change their ingredients and so I should always check the label … the same one that won’t tell me what’s in their spices.

I can only assume some combination of the following is going on at Heinz:

1) They truly can’t wrap their heads around the idea that someone is allergic to something not on the list of ingredients they are legally mandated to reveal.

2) They think I am the competition, and by saying yes or no to whether their ketchup contains sesame, I’m clearly going to be that much closer to creating a competing ketchup in my small, non-industrial kitchen. With a toddler and a labrador as my sous-chefs.

3) Heinz is manufacturing soylent green.

In any case, this exchange with Heinz has been illuminating. I knew companies did not need to reveal their specific recipes, but a doctor’s note to find out if a specific spice is used is ridiculous. Even if this wasn’t a case of life and death, consumers deserve to know what is in their food!

Next time you’re browsing the grocery store and you see a Heinz product, remember: as long as whatever is in their “proprietary spices” is fit for human consumption, they don’t need to reveal what it is. Yum!

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About the Author

Zek has been a gadget fiend for a long time, going back to their first PDA (a Palm M100). They quickly went from researching what PDA to buy to following tech news closely and keeping up with the latest and greatest stuff. They love writing about ebooks because they combine their two favorite activities; reading anything and everything, and talking about fun new tech toys. What could be better?

2 Comments on "Want to Know What’s in Your Food? Don’t Ask Heinz!"

  1. This stuff is SO tricky … and honestly things have gotten much better through the years. With her more recent nut allergy Lisa can easily figure out what to avoid … though it is amazing how many people still add nuts to things going for general distribution (things like chocolate chip cookies!).

    She has a sesame sensitivity and more intense sensitivity to pine nuts, and both of those are frequently added to stuff like Hummus (ok sesame is always there but generally in tolerable levels), and other things that cause her minor issues. Again, nothing like an allergy … but it is getting into that area where she has to be careful – and stuff doesn’t have to be reported.

    But her big one is apples. She is terribly allergic, and apples are used all over the place because it is a really cheap filler. Through the years we have gotten really good at deciphering what will contain apple juices even if the word ‘apple’ never appears.

    This is a really tough area … because working in a company that deals with people trying to get secret info (people have literally been caught dumpster diving and we got a notice when a camera drone was going to be flying over the research campus for corporate pictures so no one would report it – or shoot it down 😉 ) … I understand that companies have to be extra careful because people ARE trying to use every avenue to get their secrets …

    None of which helps you as a parent.

    We are so worried about ‘label honesty’ as a means to battle obesity … how about label honesty to prevent allergic reactions?

  2. I get that there’s a reason for secrecy…but a simple yes, a sesame allergic child could eat this, or no, I would not let a sesame allergic child eat this is simple enough. I’m not looking for the amount breakdown, just a yes/no! It’s ketchup, not nuclear codes.

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