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New Labeling Guidelines Protect Food-Allergic Consumers

Issue May/June 2001

When you order a sandwich from a deli, do you get a choice of white, semolina, or rye bread? Have you ever had cookies and a nice glass of whey and casein before bed? If you answered "no" to these questions, chances are you don't know what you're eating. And you're not alone. Although today's consumer is more health and nutrition savvy than ever before, understanding nutrition labels can still be a challenge. It is hardly common knowledge that semolina is derived from wheat, or that casein and whey come from milk. For most people, these are minor details, but for someone who is allergic to wheat or milk, it can mean life or death. Thanks to the efforts of some food trade associations and consumer groups, foods that may be harmful to people with allergies just got easier to spot. The Food Allergy Issues Alliance (FAIA), led by the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), the Grocery Manufacturers of America, and the National Food Processors Association, released a set of new guidelines for the labeling of foods that contain known allergens. The guidelines aim to make food labels clearer, more consistent, and, consequently, safer for food-allergic consumers. Anne Munoz-Furlong, president and founder of FAAN, stresses that "labels should be written for consumers, not for scientists."

What Is a Food Allergy?
Food allergies occur when the body's immune system reacts to proteins in certain foods, triggering a severe reaction. Symptoms include swelling of the lips, tongue, and face; shortness of breath or wheezing; and gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting, abdominal pain, or diarrhea. Anaphylaxis is a condition in which several parts of the body have an allergic reaction at the same time. This reaction can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that 6 million to 7 million Americans, including 2 million school-age children, suffer from food allergies. Food allergies are responsible for 30,000 emergency room visits, and 150 to 200 deaths annually. More than 90 percent of all allergic reactions to food are caused by 8 known allergens: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish.

What Are the New Guidelines?
The proposed guidelines call for manufacturers to list each allergen by its "plain English" name, such as milk, wheat, eggs, or shrimp. These terms, which should be in close proximity to the list of ingredients, can be designated by an asterisk, in parentheses following the technical name of the ingredient, or in a statement at the end of the ingredients list (e.g., "Contains milk and eggs"). This will allow people with allergies, especially children, to easily identify potentially harmful foods.

The guidelines also stress the importance of disclosing all allergenic ingredients, regardless of the source. This includes allergens that are part of a flavoring agent or that are present in very small quantities. People with severe allergies are often sensitive to the allergen at very low levels.

The new guidelines also address Supplemental Allergen Statements, more commonly known as "may contain" labels. These labels are used when there is a chance that foods that do not contain a known allergen as an ingredient may inadvertently come into contact with an allergen during manufacturing. The new guidelines outline criteria that, if met, would indicate that a "may contain" statement is appropriate. These criteria include the following:

  • It is documented, by visual examination or analytical testing, that a known major food allergen is present.
  • The risk of the presence of a food allergen is unavoidable, even when good manufacturing practices are followed.
  • The allergen may be present in some, but not all, of the product.
  • The food allergen is potentially harmful to the consumer.

The new guidelines encourage simplicity and consistency among food labels, which will better address the needs of the food-allergic consumer. "FAAN strongly believes these guidelines will enable consumers to make educated decisions when purchasing their groceries," says Munoz-Furlong.

When Will the New Guidelines Take Effect?
Many food manufacturers are already following the new labeling guidelines, and FAIA hopes that more will follow suit in the near future. Since the new guidelines are voluntary for the manufacturer, consumers are expected to drive the changes. FAIA believes that the millions of Americans affected by food allergies are very interested in food labeling issues and will choose products that have implemented the new guidelines.

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