Warning: You may be illiterate

April 2, 2009

In this fast paced modern world it is increasingly difficult to know where our food comes from.  It also becomes difficult to always know what is in our food.  The list of ingredients and nutritional information has been a relief for many concerned consumers.  Those customers who have food-allergies, keep kosher or have other dietary restrictions can seek the back of a package for the alleviation of those concerns.  Sometimes, in this overprotective society that appeals to the lowest common denominator, we see instances of redundancy, idiosyncrasy, or sometimes even irony in our warning labels.

Plastic bags caution parents not to confuse them with toys.  Large buckets often remind parents not to allow children to fall into them.  Toys that are choking size inform the purchaser of such risk.  I don’t mean to limit the warnings in our society to children.  Drivers are perhaps the most immune to such ridiculously obvious warnings.  Signs that caution “slippery when wet” or “light ahead” and sometimes the “reduced speed ahead” seem pretty redundant to a driver that pays attention to road conditions or who is familiar with an area.  Of course, the incident with McDonald’s coffee a few years back produced the oft laughed at, “Caution: The beverage you are about to enjoy is extremely hot.”  It is unfortunate that the woman who had coffee spilled on her lap received burns, but does that caution statement change any of that or prevent people from being clumsy?  Does it make the coffee less hot?  Was someone, anyone ever unaware that the hot-coffee they ordered would be hot?

Given the conditions of our society’s current mode of cautioning and warning consumers it seems like the next thing is for beverages to warn that they “may be wet” or ice-cream to warn it “may cause temporary cold feelings in the head often associated with brain freeze.” 

This was exactly the case I ran into the other evening.  While on break at work I sat down to enjoy some Emerald Nuts.  I was alone in the break room and became bored quickly.  While munching on a few honey roasted peanuts I read the label.  “Emerald Nuts:  Old Fashioned Honey Roasted Peanuts”  was proudly displayed above a field of falling peanuts.  So I read the ingredients, hoping for something a little more interesting.  The first ingredient was in bold, “Peanuts” and then the rest followed, nothing too strange or chemical so my eyes scanned to the “Allergy Information” also in bold.  There I found the greatest redundancy I’ve seen lately.  A caution that “this product may contain peanuts.”  I was outraged.  Not because I’m anti-allergy, or pro-peanut, but because the honey roasted peanuts I was enjoying only may contain peanuts!  Are these the standards we have set for our society?  Can someone who has a nut allergy actually make any claims to Emerald Nuts that they didn’t know the honey roasted peanuts had peanuts in them?  More disappointingly, Emerald Nuts assumes that despite having “Nuts” as their company’s name, “Peanuts” as the product name, images of peanuts all over the front of the container, and “Peanuts” as the main ingredient there are still people who wouldn’t know it “may contain peanuts” unless the Allergy Information line after the ingredients said so.  Ironically, that warning of its potential contents is the smallest instance of the word “peanut” on the whole package. 

As a famous peanut once said, “good grief!”

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15 Responses to “Warning: You may be illiterate”

  1. lenny25 said

    hahah…I truly enjoyed this. I agree with everything that is previously stated here, however in this sue crazy world we currently live in, I dont blame companies for covering their asses. The peanut butter I have in my room also has this allergy warning on it…It’s all natural, crunchy peanut butter…no shit!

  2. thebeerphilosopher said

    Great post. Nothing pisses me off more than seeing big companies pandering to the stupid people among us who would pick up a jar of peanuts and think, “hey, I could sue the nuts off these guys.” So to speak.

    Oh god, I apologize for that. I need more coffee.

  3. Notelrac said

    You’re “illiterate” with regards to the facts in the McDonald’s coffee case. See http://www.lectlaw.com/files/cur78.htm for details. One quote: “…the judge called
    McDonalds’ conduct reckless, callous and willful.”

    As far as your outrage concerning, “may contain peanuts”… Googling that phrase would show you that the language is an industry standard, and might become required by law. I’ve had to take a close family member to the hospital because some cranberry relish dressing we bought didn’t have a warning label, “contains walnuts”. So I’m pretty glad to see allergen warnings, even if you feel they are ironic or unnecessary.

  4. Palm Tree said

    I think there is a difference Notelrac between wal-nuts in Cranberry Dressing and Peanuts in a bottle of PEANUTS. I’ll repeat that in case anyone missed it in the original post … the warning was that there was PEANUTS in his PEANUTS.

  5. Booklet said

    I have to agree with notelrac on this one. Isn’t over labeling better than underlabling? I’m sure that’s what people with these allergies would say?

    Assuming that overlabling is preferred to underlabling, isn’t it easier to post a warning on everything that contains nuts than to try to classify what items merit a warning and which are obvious?

    On the topic of the “McDonald’s Case,” of course the woman should have known the coffee was hot. But how was she to know that McDonald’s was serving the coffee 40 degrees hotter than coffee is normally served and at a temperature that causes burns almost instantly when it hits the skin.

  6. Palm Tree said

    Is there no personal responsibility? Is every person and every business then supposed to be responsible for every unintelligent and clumsy move a person could possibly make? Also Booklet, when you say “isn’t it easier to post a warning on everything” it appears you are saying that all product wrappers are designed simultaneously without individual attention. Does there need to be standards that something that has Peanuts in the title has nuts in it? This only contributes to a system that encourages lawsuits for greed over justice and responsibility.

    To Quote the Eagles:

    “You say you haven’t been the same since you had your little crash
    But you might feel better if I gave you some cash…”

    “You don’t want to work, you want to live like a king
    But the big, bad world doesn’t owe you a thing”

    • Notelrac said

      Peanut allergy and “tree nut” allergy are two different medical conditions. Peanuts are legumes (aka “beans”) and come from the ground. Tree nuts are walnuts, pecans, pine nuts, coconuts, etc and hang from trees. It is possible to have one allergy and not the other, or to have both.

  7. Notelrac said

    Why have a label? Think of “Soy Milk.” It looks like milk and is packaged by dairy companies with pictures of something that to the casual shopper looks like milk. So something coming from a peanut company might be some sort of “mock peanuts”, made out of something that looks like peanuts and tastes like peanuts, but contains none of the allergen-producing compounds in real peanuts. Ah, the wonders of food science.

    To quote someone who isn’t the Eagles…

    “Milton: We use choicest juicy chunks of fresh Cornish ram’s bladder, emptied, steamed, flavoured with sesame seeds whipped into a fondue and garnished with lark’s vomit.
    Praline: LARK’S VOMIT?!?!?
    Milton: Correct.
    Praline: Well it don’t say nothing about that here.
    Milton: Oh yes it does, on the bottom of the box, after monosodium glutamate.
    Praline: (looking) Well I hardly think this is good enough. I think it would be more appropriate if the box bore a great red label: “WARNING: LARK’S VOMIT!!!”
    Milton: Our sales would plummet.”

    • thebeerphilosopher said

      All of this is ridiculous. If someone with a peanut allergy picks up a can of peanuts, eats them, and dies from his allergy, then I have no choice but to think about it from a Darwinian standpoint. I can only hope he or she didn’t get a chance to breed before he or she killed him or herself.

      • thresholdlurker said

        I’m going to agree with thebeerphilosopher. I think the point of this post is about peanuts. Not about soymilk. If you have a nut allergy (of any sort) I can understand a desire to be informed about products. Really I can. But there is a point where I need to roll my eyes and think we’re being overkill. Nut warnings on a package of nuts is that point.

        Also, I do think that if you have these allergies it is not the responsibility of every company out there to emblazon their products with warning about everything in their product which is potentially dangerous to someone. It is in no small part the responsibility of the consumer to be aware of what products are or are not safe. The soymilk example, for instance, is a clear case of “this is made from soy, which is something you should know to avoid because you’ve done the basic level of research on your allergy” level of threat.

  8. thebeerphilosopher said

    And furthermore, should we put labels like, “Warning: choking hazard” on every snack food smaller than a pretzel? Or “Warning: Brain Freeze Hazard” on our ice cream? Maybe frozen hamburgers should carry warnings like, “Warning: Overuse of this product has been known to cause obesity, laziness and stupidity.” Mountain Dew could carry a warning like, “Warning: This product contains a dangerous chemical which may cause symptoms similar to those of ADHD in small children.” Bags of espresso beans could carry a warning that said, “Danger: Drinking espresso may make you a douchebag.”

    And don’t even get me started on hot dogs.

  9. Anonymous said

    But where do you draw the line? People are allergic to EVERYTHING, do you warn them about all that too?? When I buy a loaf of bread it doesnt say may contain wheat? I have a friend who is allergic to wheat, should he go buy bread assuming that because it doesnt have a warning its okay to eat? No. Its up to the person to have some sense of responsibility.

  10. Palm Tree said

    Thank you Anonymous. That is a very good point. With the amount of things that people can potentially be allergic too why are only a few things chosen to put on food packages. I was also reading an article in newsweek a couple of weeks ago where it said that more people die of being struck by lighting each year, than die of food allergies.

    Just something to think about …

    • Notelrac said

      A more realistic comparison would be, “number of people struck by lightning” and “number of people went into anaphylactic shock after eating something they were allergic to.” One of them is an instantaneous fatal event; the other would be fatal within minutes or hours, if you don’t receive treatment. To put it another way, there is no epipen that you can self-medicate with after an electrocution incident…

  11. lenny25 said

    Also whether it is documented on the package or not if you are unaware of your allergy, the documentation doesnt help…
    I’m just saying, people who are aware of their allergies know what to eat and what not to, people who dont know are going to be allergic either way…so the documentation doesnt help them much anyways.

    p.s how come my comment came up as written anonymously??

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