Eating M&M's was a big deal for Nicholas Vanech when he was 10 years old. He was allergic to tree nuts (almonds, etc.), so candy was always a gamble for him, but the chocolate candy label only said "may contain peanuts," which he knew he wasn't allergic to. So he popped them in his mouth.
It wasn't long before Nicholas, now 18, went into anaphylactic shock, a severe allergic reaction that causes the tongue and throat to swell, making it difficult to breathe and requiring a trip to the emergency room.
"I called [the candy manufacturer] after my son's reaction," said Denise Vanech, Nicholas's mother."I said, 'Is it possible that he could have been exposed to tree nuts from your product?' They said, 'Yeah. It's the same facility.'"
That was nearly a decade ago.
Since then, food labeling in the United States (and at Mars, Inc.) has undergone significant changes to prevent customers from experiencing allergic reactions, but there's still a long way to go, experts say.
"It's a very difficult topic to find a perfect solution for," said Dr. Scott Sicherer, a professor and researcher at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "Companies can always make a mistake and have recalls if a product is found to have a mislabeled an ingredient in it. Unless someone gets sick from it, they wouldn't know it was there."
The Food and Drug Administration and manufacturers have issued 20 recalls in the last 60 days for undeclared allergens in food products, including Chicken of the Sea tuna, which had undeclared soy; two kinds of Wegmans brownie mix with undeclared milk; and two kinds of ice cream with undeclared pecans, according to FDA records.
An ABC News analysis found more than 400 recalls for undeclared allergens in food reported to the FDA since March 2009. More than 140 of them were for desserts and snack foods, like cookies, candy and ice cream. Repeat brand recalls were often from grocery stores, such as Kroger, Publix, Whole Foods Market and Wegmans.
Eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts, and wheat make up 90 percent of food allergies, according to a 2008 CDC report that found an 18 percent rise in children diagnosed with food allergies between 1997 and 2007.
Federal law requires manufacturers to list the top eight allergens on food labels in plain English -- "milk" instead of "casein," for example. The law, called the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004, went into effect in 2006.
But other allergens, like sesame, don't have to be called out on food labels. It's also possible that products that don't contain an allergen can become contaminated with it if the allergen-free product is made or packaged in the same factory as a product containing that allergen.
"Advisory labeling, some people call this precautionary labeling," Sicherer said, "those types of comments are totally voluntary. They're not part of the law."
As such, the labels aren't consistent with one another. Labels can say "may contain peanuts," or "made in a facility that also processes nuts," which many allergic people find confusing. It's possible a manufacturer failed to write an advisory or that the manufacturer over-labeled on items that were at low risk for contamination.
Food safety lawyer Bill Marler said he's never had a case in which someone had an allergic reaction because a manufacturer failed to say it intentionally put nuts or milk in its product, but he's had cross-contamination cases.