Consumer Law

Know Thy Food Food Labeling and Warnings

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At the church potluck dinner: None. On the homemade birthday treat brought to class: None. On the bake sale breads and cookies: None. On the grocery store shelves: everywhere. "Nutrition Facts", peanut warnings, calorie counts, fat gram charts. It seems we're flooded with information about the food we purchase from stores.

And now some restaurants are posting "Nutrition Facts" about their fare - bad news about calories and fat grams if you read them. What should we know about the food we eat and how?

Increased Awareness

If you've stepped inside a Dunkin' Donuts for coffee in the morning, you may have seen notices that their products may contain nuts or other allergens. Many restaurants in New York City must have the nutrition values of their food ready for inspection by patrons.

With the increased awareness of food allergies, potential for salmonella and knowledge of food by consumers, food is becoming more a commodity and less of an art.

Federal Regulations Govern Food Warnings

New food businesses of all types - restaurants, sidewalk food wagons or produce stands - may now have to post food safety warnings on the food they serve. This includes ingredients, nutrition (or lack thereof), potential allergens and where the ingredients are from.

If you're starting a new food business, check with your local health department for any food labeling and packaging requirements. You don't want to run afoul of those rules due to the potential damage to reputation and customer trust if word gets out that your business didn't pass muster with the health department.

The key federal agency that oversees food safety, warnings and labels is the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Web site contains a wealth of information about all aspects of food, from field to supermarket to table. The USDA also controls the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. These offices keep consumers informed about potential health and safety risks posed by food and food components. However, no government agency can possibly control every aspect of the foods coming into our country for human consumption.

Buyer Beware: Foreign Foods

Candies, drinks and even produce that are processed, packaged and transported beyond the borders of the US aren't subject to absolute scrutiny for consumer safety. Consumers should beware of products labeled as made in other countries but without any product information or labeling.

Be Informed about Food-Related Health Risks

Be sure to heed the warnings of food safety alerts. A product recall or warning is a sure sign of danger, so don't take these warnings lightly. Return the products to the store where you purchased them, or discard them. If you suspect that you've become ill from food you purchased at a store or restaurant, seek medical attention immediately, and contact the store or restaurant as soon as possible.

You should ask your physician if the illness should be reported to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, where statistics are gathered about food illnesses.

An attorney can be a helpful resource if you've suffered a severe food-related illness or injury. The attorney will assess the nature of the injury, the conduct of the entity that prepared and sold the food, and whether the injury or illness could've been prevented had the store or restaurant followed proper procedures. Importantly, the attorney will help you assess how to prevent such harm from coming to others, if reports to the local and state health departments, attorney general's office or even the USDA or CDC are warranted.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Should I try to keep the unused portion of a food product that I suspect made me sick, if I can do so safely? How else can I prove what made me sick?
  • I like to shop at ethnic food stores, which of course carry lots of imported foods, both fresh and dry goods. Are there any specific types of labeling to look for, and are lots of imported foods traceable like an American product would be?
  • How accurate do food labels have to be, and is there a difference for fresh or restaurant food versus packaged foods? If the food product varies from the label and someone gets sick or is harmed is there liability?
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