Resolved: food allergy warnings not stupid

It’s always fun to joust with my friend Bob Thompson, who is perhaps the most libertarian libertarian I know. Sadly, I think he’s flat-out wrong about food allergy warnings. I admit to being biased; my wife is gluten-intolerant and I have other relatives (and friends) who suffer from various kinds of nut allergy.

The problem with the current labeling standard is this: there is no standard. Quick: what’s the difference between “may contain”, “made in the same factory with”, and “produced on the same equipment with”? If I have three products with those labels, how can I tell which one(s) (if any) are OK to bring home? The existing US law, FALCPA, requires manufacturers to label products that contain certain allergens. Manufacturers have voluntarily been adding “may contain”-style warnings to reduce their liability– but there’s no standard for doing so, and this is resulting in a lot of needless hassle for the producers and consumers.

On the gluten-free front, there is an existing EU standard for deciding which products may be labeled as “gluten-free”, based solely on measured gluten content in the final product. The FDA is in the process of adopting it, which I think is great: it gives people a tangible indicator of whether something is safe to eat, or not, irrespective of where and how it was produced. Until then, I don’t see how standardizing on a labeling phrase could possibly be a bad thing. In fact, if I’m going to have the government spending money on regulations, better they should do it for food safety than on firearms or political contributions.

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