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7 On Your Side investigates candy bar label

May 15, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Years ago, peanut butter sandwiches were a staple for school lunches; now many schools ban them. An estimated 8-percent of U.S. children have a severe allergy to foods like nuts or dairy. Parents are reading labels to see what's safe, but 7 On Your Side found labels that don't always tell you what may be hidden in the food.

Sometimes what you read on the package is different than what you are actually eating. A San Jose mother thought she was feeding her child a perfectly safe candy bar, because it was labeled "dairy free".

However, she says eating the candy could have threatened her son's life.

Tyler is 7 years old and is as playful as any first grader. He likes to dive into his toy tent and wrestle with his little brother. You would never know this carefree boy faces a terrible threat.

"It is life and death. It's not something to be taken lightly," said Nicola Sessions of San Jose.

Tyler is severely allergic to dairy products. His mother, Nicola, says the slightest drop of milk or eggs could cause a life threatening shock.

"He experiences vomiting, his tongue and his lips start to get swollen. He could have difficulties breathing," said Nicola.

Nicola separates all food in the kitchen. Tyler's "safe" foods are placed down low and unsafe foods are placed way up high. At the store, Tyler has learned to read labels to find safe treats.

"He found the candy bar and he said, 'Mommy, this says 'dairy free' and 'vegan'. Does that mean I can have it?'" said Nicola.

Tyler was thrilled to find the chocolate bars had a dairy-free label.

"And I read all of the ingredients and I did not see any dairy or egg," said Nicola.

Tyler began to eat one of the bars, and within minutes, the panic.

"He said to us, 'My mouth is burning. My mouth is on fire.' He threw up about three times," said Nicola.

Nicola was ready with a shot of emergency medicine. The reaction subsided on its own, but Nicola says Tyler's fear did not go away.

"He asked me, 'Mommy, why did they trick us with that label?'" said Nicola.

Turns out, the candy did say "dairy free" and "vegan" on the front, but in small print on the back, it also says the candy is made "in a facility that produces products containing dairy."

Nicola says she saw that notice, but relied upon the "dairy free" label on the front.

"We should take anything on the label, especially on the front of a label, with a grain of salt," said Jon Fox, a consumer advocate from the California Public Interest Research Group.

Fox says parents should not rely on labels to protect kids, especially when a few molecules of a nut or milk can threaten their lives.

Nicola wrote to the candy maker, Go Max Go Foods of Dallas, Texas, saying its labeling was "irresponsible." The company replied she should have heeded the allergen warning on the back. "...and questioning my abilities as a mother," said Nicola.

Nicola found out the candy bars had already been recalled in Canada because they "may contain milk which is not declared on the label." She contacted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration which opened an investigation. She also contacted 7 On Your Side.

"I hoped that I could relay the message that this is a serious issue," said Nicola.

We contacted the FDA which tells us, there is no regulation that defines use of the term "dairy free."

The law does require companies to list allergens like peanuts and milk if they are part of the recipe. But nothing requires them to warn you of possible contamination from shared equipment. That's done voluntarily.

However, the FDA said labels must be truthful and "dairy free" should mean zero dairy.

No one has tested Tyler's candy bars to check for traces of milk.

Go Max Go did not respond to our requests for a statement.

After the FDA investigation, Go Max Go voluntarily withdrew its candy bars with the dairy free label, and issued this notice saying: "People who have severe allergies to milk may run the risk of a serious or life-threatening allergic reaction if they consume these products."

Although the company did not use the term "recall," the candy bars were removed from store shelves and those that had purchased the products could return them for a full refund.

The company is expected to bring back the candy with new labels. Nicola says it's a lesson hard learned for her and Tyler.

"I'm definitely more diligent and more cautious about what I give him now and the labels that he reads," said Nicola.

A new regulation requires federal health officials to study what happens when food makers share their equipment. The goal is to find out if your food is likely to be contaminated with dangerous allergens -- like nuts and milk -- and if it puts more consumers in danger. We'll be keeping track of that and report back if that information becomes available.

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