Is It Time to Rethink Food Allergen Warnings on Packaging?
A heartbreaking case out of Florida has raised an interesting dialogue surrounding food products that contain allergens and how they are packaged. According to USA Today, 15-year-old Alexi Stafford died in June after ingesting a Chips Ahoy! cookie that contained Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. The report states that Stafford had a known peanut allergy, but accidentally ate the cookie at a friend’s house, not realizing it contained peanut ingredients.
Since her daughter's passing, Stafford’s mother, Kellie Travers-Stafford, has taken to social media, pointing out that the packaging of the Reese's infused cookies could easily be confused with that of similar Chips Ahoy! products. While the packaging containing the peanut butter filled cookies does prominently feature the Reese’s logo, images of peanut butter cups, and provides allergen warnings, Travers-Stafford’s Facebook post states that with the package open and the wrapper folded back, the red package looks very similar to the Chips Ahoy’s Chewy package for its cookies that do not contain peanut ingredients. The similarities are evident in the post below:
The Facebook post has garnered more than 20,000 comments, with many supporting a packaging design change that more prominently expresses the presence of allergens or utilizes different colors. However, another faction of commenters, while sympathetic to the circumstances of the tragedy, points out that the brand was in compliance with regulations and consumers with allergies need to be aware of what they're ingesting, regardless of the packaging.
USA Today’s report on the incident includes a tweet from Chips Ahoy! addressing the situation, in which the brand states the packaging for the Reese’s products expresses the fact that it contains peanut ingredients through “words and visuals.” The color of the packaging, Chips Ahoy! explains, signifies whether the product is part of its “Chewy, Chunky or Original,” product lines.
Packaging Perspective: It’s easy to see both sides here. On one hand, the package contains allergen warnings, the Reese’s logo, and images of peanut butter cups. On the other, if normal usage of the product can cause those warnings to become obscured, it’s clear how a consumer could make this mistake. As Travers-Stafford pointed out on Facebook, there are "NO screaming warnings about such a fatal ingredient to many people." The USA Today report also points out other social media comments that suggest the brand utilize a different color or design to signify products that contain these food allergens. In scrolling through Chips Ahoy!'s Twitter page, these requests are easy to find. For example:
Hey @ChipsAhoy - saw this at the grocery store today. The peanut one is stacked right in with the regular version. The packaging is near identical. If you’re going to make a version with a serious allergen, make the packaging noticeably different please. pic.twitter.com/lcN3meE2yh
— Jon Schwenn (@jonschwenn) July 14, 2018
Regardless of which side of the equation you fall on, Lise Broer's writing on this incident for Medium, raises an important point. Nowhere in Travers-Stafford's post did she assign blame to the brand or make a specific demand that Chips Ahoy! change its packaging. As Broer points out, Travers-Stafford made her post as a means to raise awareness about the packaging in an effort to prevent a similar accident from taking place. When an innocent mistake claims the life of a teenager, I think we can all agree that increasing awareness is beneficial.
Food allergies are on the rise, according to Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), an organization dedicated to improving the quality of life of those with food allergies. According to FARE, one in 13 children suffers from a food allergy, and tree nut allergies seem to have tripled among children between 1997 and 2008.
While there are packaging and labeling regulations already in place, as the food allergy concern becomes increasingly prevalent, is it time to reconsider how these potentially fatal food products are packaged? Let us know what you think in the comments below.