Food allergy label law to take effect

Caution is still urged for those with celiac disease because all products containing gluten will not be clearly identified for some time.

By Susan J. Landers — Posted Nov. 14, 2005

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Washington -- A new food-labeling law, set to take effect Jan. 1, 2006, should remove much of the confusion over which foods will trigger allergies among the estimated 11 million Americans who count peanuts, shellfish and six other common foods among the enemy.

The law requires food manufacturers to identify in plain, common language the presence of milk, egg, tree nuts, fish, wheat and soy, in addition to peanuts and shellfish.

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act also requires food labels to list any of those common allergens that are used as flavorings, additives and colorings, thus also providing protection from the hidden uses of the foods.

"It's a good law," said Alessio Fasano, MD, director of the University of Maryland's Center for Celiac Research. "For people with severe, life-threatening allergies and people who have conditions like celiac disease and can react to gluten in a way that affects their morbidity and mortality, this is great news," he said.

Since just one small bite can cause big trouble, those with allergies have spent much time in grocery store aisles deciphering labels that often use scientific terms for common food ingredients. For example, casein may be listed instead of milk.

A study by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network found that 16% of the 489 people surveyed at FAAN's conferences said they had an allergic reaction because of misunderstood label terms and 22% indicated a reaction from allergens not specified on food labels.

"Overall this bill has very broad implication for those with food allergies. It will make it easier for even a 7-year-old to read a label and it's not just the children, but the babysitter, the scout leader and everyone else who will be able to understand what they are reading instead of having to know the scientific terms," said Anne Muñoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of FAAN.

Caution still required

However, people will still need to be alert to food with old labels that don't yet offer the new information. Foods manufactured and labeled prior to Jan. 1, 2006, will be on store shelves until their expiration dates -- sometimes months hence.

Plus, people with celiac disease will need to be wary. Although wheat is one of the eight foods required to be listed on labels, rye, barley and oats -- all of which can trigger the disorder -- are not.

"We have a mixed view of the law," said Linda Flyr, national contact support manager at the Celiac Sprue Assn. in Omaha, Neb. "The law is a step in the right direction but it doesn't go far enough to completely assist the people with celiac disease."

Having barley clearly identified on labels carries added importance because it is frequently used to make malt, a product that is used extensively in packaged cereals, said Flyr.

But that too should change. The new law requires that the Food and Drug Administration begin to work on a "gluten-free" food label and to have a proposal ready shortly.

Within six years there should be a rule defining gluten-free products and a regulation for the food industry to follow, said Muñoz-Furlong.

The law also requires the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to collect national data on the prevalence of food allergies and their prevention and treatment.

In addition, it calls for guidelines that aid in the preparation of allergen-free foods in restaurants, grocery-store bakeries and school cafeterias.

Restaurant dining continues to pose a risk for the allergic customer. The Mount Sinai-FAAN study showed that one in three of those surveyed who were allergic had a reaction to food served in or provided by a restaurant. Plus, 63% of those individuals had a food-allergic reaction from restaurant food on two or more occasions.

One hazard of restaurant dining for people with food allergies results from cross-contamination of food, said Flyr. For example, people with celiac disease may have a reaction to eggs that are scrambled on the same griddle where pancakes were cooked.

The FDA has, however, just published its 2005 Food Code, which is followed by restaurants, and it includes descriptions of food allergens and a requirement that those in charge have knowledge about food allergies, said Muñoz-Furlong.

Although the law does not require that threshold levels of safety for allergens be determined -- a concern for many who fear that labeling practices may unnecessarily restrict food choices for those with already limited diets -- it does ask that the National Institutes of Health explore additional research needs in food allergies, she noted.

Plus, the FDA has already released a draft report on approaches to establish thresholds for major food allergens and for gluten in food.

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Food allergy facts

  • 4% of the U.S. population -- about 11 million people -- have food allergies. As many as 3 million have peanut or tree nut allergies.
  • 8 foods account for 90% of allergic reactions: peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy and wheat.
  • Peanuts are the leading cause of severe allergic reactions followed by shellfish, fish, tree nuts and eggs.
  • Physicians are reporting an increase in the number of food-allergic patients in the country.
  • Food allergy is the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside the hospital setting, accounting for an estimated 30,000 emergency department visits and 2,000 hospitalizations each year.
  • An estimated 150 to 200 people die each year from food allergy-related reactions.

Source: The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network

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External links

Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (link)

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (link)

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (link)

Food and Drug Administration on food allergens (link)

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