Kathleen Silverman was vigilant about what she fed her son Tyler, who suffers from life-threatening food allergies. So when she read on the packaging of a soy-based product that it was dairy-free, she felt confident Tyler would be safe eating it. Moments later, Tyler, then 4, went into anaphylactic shock and was rushed to the emergency room.
Much to her surprise, testing in an independent laboratory showed the food Tyler ate had milk in it—the product was manufactured in an ice cream plant. Kathleen began researching food labeling laws, only to find there is no penalty for manufacturers who mislabel a product, even when mislabeling results in a potentially deadly situation.
Kathleen and her husband, Robert, of Geneva, had come to terms with Tyler’s food allergies. He had trouble with breastfeeding from birth, so his parents were told to try formula. His first sip of the bottle sent him to the hospital, where the emergency room doctors told the worried parents that Tyler was having a severe allergic reaction to the milk-based formula. From that moment on, Kathleen and Robert checked every item Tyler came near to make sure it didn’t contain milk, egg, peanuts or tree nuts. But nothing prepared them for the fact that no law required manufacturers to tell the truth when it came to ingredients in their products.
Kathleen decided it was time to fight this oversight. As far as she was concerned, no child should have to suffer a life-threatening reaction due to a mislabeled product.
"Whether you’re diabetic or allergic or for religious or whatever conviction, when we buy a product we should be able to know that it is accurately labeled," Kathleen says.
To help other parents and to close the loophole in the law, Kathleen recently started the Eat, Learn, Live Foundation. "Every child deserves the right to eat store-bought food and be safe," Kathleen says.
The Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires manufacturers to identify the top food allergens in their product, but it does not impose penalties on those manufacturers who don’t adhere to the law, Kathleen says.
As part of ELL’s Web site, consumers can submit the names of manufacturers, the product and what’s incomplete or inaccurate in the label. Based on that, Kathleen and Robert will contact both the manufacturer and the government to let them know about the error.
"We’re trying to bridge the gap and bring everyone together. Let’s fix this flaw," Kathleen says. "We’re going to manufacturers to say, please change your labeling."
Fighting for the rights of Tyler and other allergic children has become a full-time job for Kathleen, who quit her job as a partner in a Chicago consulting firm when she realized Tyler had severe health issues. Since then, the mom of Tyler, now 6, and CJ, 4, has devoted 20 to 40 hours per week on ELL. In addition to taking on food labeling, Kathleen has also developed a consultant network across the country that is trained to educate schools on how to provide a safe learning environment for children with dangerous allergies.
"Schools are really coming forward with this, but it’s really inconsistent," says Kathleen.
A law that would incorporate universal policies and programs for children with food allergies has recently passed the federal House of Representatives and is in the Senate, but participation by schools is voluntary, she says. For a nominal fee, ELL will send a consultant to a child’s school to train personnel in how to keep schools safe for children with food allergies.
The ELL Web site also includes products for people with food allergies, including theme-based gloves for children who are too allergic to even touch an arcade game or a shared computer keyboard.
Reaction to ELL has been considerable. "It’s overwhelming right now, in a way that is extremely emotional to me. It’s confirmation that we’re doing the right thing," Kathleen says. "To me it’s just second nature … but other moms are so grateful that we’re trying to make these changes. I never expected this kind of response."
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