Snack Food Packaging, Labeling Safety Merits In-Depth Review

Teen death due to peanut allergy is a wakeup call

By Gary Paulin and Mark Lusky

Normally not thought of as a life or death catalyst, snack food labels and packaging were cast in a new light after a teen with a severe peanut allergy died last summer after mistakenly ingesting Nabisco Chips Ahoy! with Reese’s peanut butter cups. The resulting discussion about packaging that her mom called “a fatal choice” is intriguing because it was a case of a prominent label gone wrong. According to an article in USA Today, “Alexi was at a friend’s where her mom believes a folded-back cookie box wrapper in a box of Chips Ahoy! cookies hid the presence of the allergic ingredient…The company says it uses colors to distinguish chewy from chunky and describes ingredients in prominent labels.”

This raises two all-important questions about the design and content of snack food labels and packaging to safeguard health: “How much is enough?” and “What can be done to raise the bar above ‘enough’?”

In hindsight, perhaps images of peanut butter cups and peanuts scattered around the package would have made sense. Or, additional verbiage could have helped ensure that anyone viewing the package would know that it contained peanuts.

What lessons can those in charge of developing snack food labels and packages learn from this tragedy? How can  this become a catalyst for future efforts to raise the bar from “enough” to “superlative?” Following are ideas to address this process:

  • Conduct a thorough assessment (or re-assessment) of your product’s ingredients and presentation to ensure covering all major health-related bases adequately. Play devil’s advocate, establishing a potential punch list of problem areas. Obviously, peanut allergy warnings have become a major issue, along with information related to gluten, genetic modification and the like. The idea here isn’t to emulate the long list of warnings that drug manufacturers must disclose, but rather to redouble efforts to ensure that consumers are fully aware of anything that could seriously jeopardize health if consumed.
  • Survey a broad cross section of your product’s audience to determine their understanding of labels and packaging. This will help determine how much/how much more to address. It’s important to remember that perceptions may change radically depending on the consumer’s age. For example, younger audiences can tend to “blow past” messaging and graphics quickly—so reinforcement can be critical. Older audiences, on the other hand, may be more likely to peruse more—if they can read the label or packaging content. Two-point type and/or special effects that hamper legibility are real challenges as people and their eyes age.
  • Re-design/rewrite labels and packaging to reinforce messaging such as nut allergies in general and peanut allergies in particular. Present everything to the fullest extent possible to help ensure universal awareness—right down to making the type legible. In the case of Chips Ahoy!, more printed and visual information disclosing peanuts as an ingredient is worth consideration. As always, there’s the tug-of-war between the legal beagles tasked with preventing liability problems and lawsuits and the in-good-conscience duty of the manufacturer to protect people from health threats.

A CBS News report following the teen’s death notes: “Chips Ahoy said Sunday in a tweet it takes allergens ‘very seriously.’…‘Chewy Chips Ahoy! made w/ Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups packaging clearly shows that it contains peanuts through words and visuals,’ it said in a statement. ‘Package color indicates Chewy, Chunky, or Original. Consumers should always read the label for allergy information.’”

That may meet legal requirements. However, the court of public opinion offers other views, including a report on snacksafely.com: “Please note that we have removed listings of all varieties of Chips Ahoy brand cookies from the Safe Snack Guide…We are taking this precaution in response to the tragic news of Alexi Ryann Stafford, a 15 year-old girl with a severe peanut allergy who suffered a fatal allergic reaction after consuming a variety of Chips Ahoy that contained peanut butter she had mistaken for the plain variety. She died 90 minutes after consuming the cookie…The packaging for the many varieties of Chips Ahoy [is] similar enough that there is a potential danger that one variety could be mistaken for another, as was the case with Alexi. In an abundance of caution, we will no longer list the product line in the Safe Snack Guide.”

Labels and packaging merit consideration far beyond legal requirements. Being socially responsible and maintaining a good reputation hang in the balance.

About the authors:

Gary Paulin is director of sales and customer service at Lightning Labels, a Denver-based custom label printer that uses state-of-the-art printing technology to provide affordable, full-color custom labels and custom stickers of all shapes and sizes.

Mark Lusky is president of Lusky Enterprises Inc., a marketing communications and content development company. He can be reached at: sales@lightninglabels.com; 800.544.6323 or 303.481.2304.