Little whispers ‘I love You!’ more fervently than a heart-shaped box of candies. Nothing gets the pulse racing and the ‘feel-good’ hormones circulating quite as quickly as sweet caramels enrobed in darkly mysterious, exotic chocolate. Nothing sets the scene quite as sweetly as a single truffle nestled suggestively atop a silken pillow. Unless, of course, it’s a tainted truffle. Contamination, especially in food products, is not just about bugs and foreign bodies, listeria or salmonella. For people with food allergies, it’s also about ingredients not noted on the wrapper. Contrary to the old saw, what we don’t know can harm us. Without wanting to destroy the romance of the moment on this Valentine’s Day, when we take a bite of a chocolate truffle or a sea salted caramel, we need to know what we’re ingesting. Having access to the correct ingredient and nutrition information is important to maintaining health and, for those with severe allergies, their lives can literally depend on it. So how romantic is that erstwhile innocuous box of mass-produced grocery store chocolates now?
Valentine’s Day is a curiously divisive celebration, combining as it does an occasion to shine and the possibility of failing spectacularly. For die-hard romantics, it’s an opportunity to woo, flirt, to express their soft side to an appreciative partner. For others who perhaps don’t wear such rose-tinted spectacles, it is a manipulative ‘Hallmark holiday’ with as much enduring reference to real human emotion as the flimsy tissue paper cut-out hearts decorating the sampler box. But one thing is indisputable: it is a costly affair.
According to journalist Madeline Cuddihy, on average we spend $19.6 billion on romance on February 14th, with $3.7 billion of that amount allocated solely to dinner.(1) (We have to assume that total is including the tip.) Slightly ahead of that amount – coming in at a caloric $3.8 billion – is the amount spent on chocolates and flowers. If we were prone to curmudgeonly behavior, we’d decry wasting money on flowers that quickly perish and chocolates that, under certain circumstances, could cause the recipient’s demise even before the rose petals have fallen.
However, we at Berkshire are not, by nature, curmudgeons, bah-humbugging the efforts of that cheeky diminutive cherub Cupid and his notoriously inaccurate bow and arrow. We actually quite like the allure of the tradition – one begun in antiquity and maintained by dreamers and lovers to this day. That said, we are more than a little relieved that it has evolved over time. In ancient Rome of the 3rd century AD, the festival of Lupercalia formed the basis of our contemporary ‘day of love’ and was a hedonistic bacchanalia, a two-day feast in which animal sacrifices were made and a crude matchmaking lottery paired fertile young revelers for the duration. When Roman Emperor Claudius II ordered the execution of two men named Valentine on February 14th (of two separate years), the Catholic Church honored them as martyrs, creating a day for ‘St. Valentine.’ Two centuries later, Pope Gelasius I gave the celebration a cautious stamp of approval by blurring the lines between Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia, ostensibly to shift the focus from the pagan rites to a celebration more fit for the Church. With the work of poets and writers such as Chaucer and Shakespeare popularizing the day of romance, the tradition took hold firmly in Europe, ultimately migrating West to the New World.
So, let’s fast-forward to our modern times. In 1910, just a hair ahead of the Great War that would devastate Europe and leave behind unmentionable sorrow, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, MO, began the mass manufacture of greetings cards, in a move that would set in motion the creation of a dynasty. At the arguable zenith of its market popularity, Hallmark employed approximately 28,000 people worldwide.(2) Gaining popularity with the slogan “When you care enough to send the very best,” the company succeeded in building upon the foundation of the greetings card industry, diversifying its portfolio by wrapping its corporate arms around Hallmark Retail, Hallmark Home & Gifts, Crown Media Family Networks (operating several cable networks), Crown Center (a real estate development company), and Crayola, that most beloved of crayon manufacturers. And in so doing the parent company generated approximately $4 billion in annual revenue for 2016.(3)
So, there’s money to be made in romance. Lots and lots of money.
Which brings us back to chocolate. From early January, it’s hard to avoid the glut of heart-shaped, schmaltz that overtakes the grocery store candy aisle. Enrobed in diaphanous, arterial-red cellophane, the ubiquitous boxes of brand name goodies crowd the shelves, flurrying into shopping carts like so many snowflakes in winter. And in the Midwest states, there’s also Palmer Candy…
However this year, for Palmer’s Valentine’s Day did not get off to a great start. In January, the Sioux City, IA, company issued a voluntary recall of its Sea Salt Caramel Hearts due to a possible peanut contamination. Peanut. Let’s just reflect on that. Peanut: one of the most well-known – and dangerous – of possible food contaminants. Unlike foods such as cashews and walnuts, peanuts are not actually tree nuts but are part of the legume family that includes beans and peas. With the potential to cause severe anaphylaxis from even the most casual physical contact, they do not have to be ingested to trigger especially sensitive individuals. By federal law, products containing peanuts or any ingredients that themselves contain or have had contact with peanuts must be declared on packaging. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), defines peanuts as a ‘major food allergen,’ one of 8 foods – including milk, shellfish, and wheat – that account for 90% of all food-related allergies.(4)
And the law has teeth. According to the FDA, non-compliance with FALCPA subjects ‘[a] company and its management […] to civil sanctions, criminal penalties, or both under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act if one of its packaged food products does not comply with the FALCPA labeling requirements. FDA may also request seizure of food products where the label of the product does not conform to FALCPA’s requirements. In addition, FDA is likely to request that a food product containing an undeclared allergen be recalled by the manufacturer or distributor.’(5)
And this is what happened with Palmer Candy. Advising on the voluntary recall of the product which was sold through the Bomgaars Supply Inc. Store across the Midwest, the FDA noted that the contamination was uncovered by an employee when ‘a peanut was observed stuck to the outside of the Sea Salt Caramel Heart.’(6) It is almost beyond belief that these peanut-free products could have come into such close proximity to a known major allergen as to allow physical contact with them and we have to wonder what sort of breach in HACCP could have permitted this to occur. Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point protocols, or HACCP, exist in order to address food safety ‘through the analysis and control of biological, chemical, and physical hazards from raw material production, procurement, and handling’ and, in addition to adherence to Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMPs) should be part of any production cycle that involves a finished product for consumption. Despite having separate sections in their website for dairy, juice and seafood HACCPs, the FDA, interestingly, does not offer a specific section for detailing a peanut-focused protocol.(7) That said, we can imagine that having an allergen physically stuck to the outside of a non-peanut product would probably contravene any HACCP you could think to enact.
Yet Palmer Candy is not alone in having to issue this kind of recall. This year so far, of the 36 food-related product recalls listed by the FDA, fully 17 were due to an undeclared allergen.(8) Moreover, in some cases, multiple allergens were involved, including not only our arch nemesis the peanut but also fish, crustaceans, wheat, eggs, soy, and milk. Certainly in terms of the FDA action against one powdered milk producer, Valley Milk Products, LLC, which has facilities in Strasburg, VA, that marketing icon, the creamy moustache, does not do a body good. In March 2017, the company, which manufactures milk powder, butter, and condensed milk, entered into a consent decree of condemnation with the federal government. A permanent injunction was ordered by the U.S. District Court for the Western Division of Virginia to effectively prohibit the distribution of any of Valley Milk’s powdered milk products. And the reason behind this action? Salmonella contamination on food contact surfaces. Following not one but four separate outbreaks spanning 2010 to 2016, actions were taken and recalls were issued. Also noted in the FDA inspection reports were insanitary conditions within the facilities which included ‘dripping brown fluids and old residue in the processing equipment.’(9) A permanent injunction swiftly followed in order to prohibit the company from disposing of any of the contaminated materials, and three of the ‘employee defendants’ were similarly prohibited from making any further additional milk products.(10)
This, of course had implications for the wider supply chain. As Constantine Spyrou writing in the Food Beast noted: ‘[for] Valley Milk Products, there’s no telling what their future will hold. As one of the largest powdered milk suppliers that has ceased production for now, it definitely hurts a lot of companies that rely on the powdered milk for product manufacturing. There’s also the consideration of criminal charges that has to be taken into account.’(11) But as of this month, it seems that Valley Milk is back in business. According to the company’s website, the new ‘state-of-the-art drying facility […] began commercial operation [and will] process 2.5 million pounds of milk per day.’(12) We can only hope that these new updated facilities are better managed with improved cGMPs, HACCP protocols, and a more informed and dedicated approach to contamination control.
So where does this leave us in terms of undeclared allergens as oftentimes overlooked sources of contamination. Outside of relying on manufacturers to do the right thing, and on the FDA to police transgressors, there is little that we, as consumers, can do to mitigate the impact of undeclared allergens in the food products we eat. For those with acute sensitivities or allergies to certain food items – such as peanuts – the unfortunate fact is that it is incumbent upon us to take responsibility for our own health as far as we can. We must be vigilant in reading the warning labels, take seriously the advice regarding potential contamination from shared processing equipment, and remember the mantra: Never be PPE-free! If you have personal protective equipment an EpiPen, carry it and know how to use it. It’s the very least you can do for yourself.
And to wrap up, the Berkshire Boffins – known for being Renaissance types with a wider assortment of passions than a Russell Stover sampler – would like to offer you, our readers, a token of our affection this Valentine’s Day. We know you love trivia so here’s a nugget of linguistic candy to sweeten your day…In German, the word ‘Gift’ (with a capital leading ‘G’) does not mean a present or offering, but instead translates as ‘poison’ or ‘toxin’ – a radically different concept from its English language cognate. We can’t help but think, however, that it seems wholly appropriate to mention this within the context of undeclared allergens in the ‘gifts’ we offer our loved ones…
‘Gift’ or gift? Did you purchase chocolates for your loved one this Valentine’s Day? Were you concerned about undeclared allergens? We’d love to know your thoughts?