Have the Food Regulators Gone Nuts?
Updated: Nov 22, 2018
Undeclared allergens continue to be the #1 cause of food recalls, with undeclared nuts topping the list. So such recall announcements by FDA and USDA are fairly common. What is less common, and rather head-scratching, is the type of recall announced by USDA FSIS last week, in which approximately 8,000 pounds of chicken and pork products were recalled due to misbranding and undeclared allergens. The announcement stated: "The products contain coconut milk and coconut cream, known tree nut allergens, which are not declared on the product label."
While I found no direct statement that coconut is a tree nut, USDA's justification for citing coconut as a tree nut is likely that of its November 2015 FSIS Compliance Guidelines which states "Consumers allergic to tree nuts are advised to avoid foods that may contain these ingredients. If meat, poultry, or egg products contain any of these, they likely contain a 'Big Eight' allergen." Among the 30 ingredients listed is coconut.
I'm not sure that that completely justifies the tree nut-allergen recall, but USDA could just as easily cite FALCPA. In the FDA's "Basics for Industry" Q&A on tree nuts, FDA poses the question, "Section 201(qq) of (FALCPA) defines the term 'major food allergen' to include 'tree nuts.' In addition to the three examples provided in section 201(qq) (almonds, pecans, and walnuts), what nuts are considered 'tree nuts?'"
Its answer is: "The following are considered 'tree nuts' for purposes of section 201(qq)." Among the 19 "tree nuts" listed in alphabetical order is, you guessed it, coconuts.
However, according to scientific resources, both the labeling of coconut as a tree nut and its relationship to tree nut allergies are both incorrect. As explained in a Library of Congress paper, botanists classify coconuts as a fibrous one-seeded drupe. A drupe is a fruit with a hard stony covering enclosing the seed (like a peach or olive) and comes from the word drupa meaning overripe olive.
As a medical doctor myself, I've never considered coconut, or heard of it to be, a tree nut. But since I've not written on it personally, I will cite Dr. Raymond Mullins of Australia, who specializes in clinical immunology and allergy and has written on it. Dr. Mullins states, "Coconut is a very different plant from peanut or tree nuts. The presence of the letters 'nut' does not mean that coco-'nut' will trigger an allergic reaction in people allergic to peanut or tree nuts.
If we give USDA and FDA a pass here, we could certainly assume their interpretation is based on a few coconut facts:
It is called a coconut, making one assume that it is a form of a nut.
It grows on trees.
It is known allergen for some – as a rare, but real, food allergen, and a more common contact allergen.
So when you have a "nut" that grows on a tree and causes allergies … by all reckoning, it "should" be included as a tree nut allergen. At least, that's the way I figure FDA and USDA must be seeing it.
In the past I have heard about FDA inspectors pointing out that coconut needs to be stored as an allergen in warehouses. But are we heading to a series of recalls related to not putting coconut on your list of declared allergens? I don’t know, but here's the real clincher, and the fact that industry needs to realize. If USDA and FDA are regulating coconut as a tree nut, you'd better be darn careful to ensure that you have no unlabeled coconut in any product. You could fight it – after all, coconuts are not scientifically tree nuts, nor are coconuts specifically listed in FALCPA – as a tree nut or otherwise. But is it really worth it? I'd recommend that, even if you think the regulators have gone nuts, you should take the recent USDA recall as a lesson learned, and treat coconut as you would any other allergen.
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