Tribune investigation prompts stores to pull food items

A research technologist prepares samples of a Wellshire Kids Corn Dog selected by the Chicago Tribune for tests of undeclared allergens. (Tribune / Zbigniew Bzdak)

Chicago-area supermarkets, gourmet shops and bakeries routinely sell mislabeled products that pose a danger to those with food allergies, according to Tribune testing and a comprehensive check of grocery aisles.

When informed of the findings, more than a dozen food companies said they would remove products from shelves or fix labels to properly disclose all ingredients.

In one of the nation's largest examinations of undisclosed ingredients in food, the Tribune reviewed thousands of items at more than 60 locations, finding dozens of products obviously mislabeled. The newspaper also conducted 50 laboratory tests—more than the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration combined over the last several years—to try to determine precise ingredients.

The newspaper's wide-ranging examination stretched from chain groceries in Naperville to ethnic stores in Pilsen to specialty shops in downtown Chicago. In the end, the Tribune identified 117 products that appear to violate federal food labeling laws.

Following previous Tribune reports that showed how government and industry fail to root out hidden allergens, this examination reveals the alarming scope of the problem.

The findings also offer lessons for parents trying to protect their children, from how to spot mislabeled food to which kinds of products are more likely to be tainted.

No. 1: Read labels carefully because errors abound

Parents should know that some products contain undisclosed ingredients.

Eight foods—milk, eggs, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish—account for 90 percent of food allergies. That's why federal law requires ingredient labels to disclose them.

Yet the Tribune found examples of those ingredients not being declared, such as in Frontier Soups Cincinnati Chili mix, sold at Arista Foods on May Street in Chicago.

Milk is not listed on the label, but when the Tribune sent the product to a University of Nebraska laboratory specializing in allergens, tests showed the chili mix contained milk. Frontier owner Trisha Anderson said milk likely slipped into the chili mix through cross-contamination during manufacturing. "We will change our labeling to reflect this allergen information," she said.

The newspaper also found more than a dozen products with incomplete labels that, for example, simply list "flour" as an ingredient. If an item contains, say, wheat flour, the packaging must say so.

Likewise, if a label discloses "butter," it must also state "milk." The law was written that way partly because many children with allergies must check labels themselves and cannot be expected to know the sub-ingredients in foods.

When the Tribune alerted manufacturers of the incomplete labels, several said they would remove the products from shelves or amend labels.

Seattle-based Theo Chocolate said it started a national recall of its Caramel Collection candy after the newspaper informed the company that its labels disclosed "organic butter" but not milk. The company said 5,000 individual packages, sold at the Whole Foods Market grocery chain, would be recalled shortly.

"It comes down to doing the right thing," said Andy McShea, Theo's chief operating officer.

The Tribune also found that Eddie's New York City Gourmet Pizza Slices listed flour in its ingredients without specifying the kind. Tests at the Nebraska lab showed the pizza contained 5,000 parts per million of gluten, indicating the presence of wheat, rye or barley.

California-based Safeway Inc., which owns the Dominick's grocery chain, removed the pizza slices from about 60 stores across the country, including 10 Dominick's in the Chicago area. Efforts to reach Eddie's J2 Broadway's NYC Flying Pizza Co., the Brooklyn company that produces the pizza, were unsuccessful.

Not all companies were quick to act.