About 25 percent of baked goods, ice cream, and candy that was sampled by the FDA failed to mention eggs or peanuts on their food labels even though one or both were present! And if allergens were listed, they are often included under a technical name a parent might not recognize (such as casein for milk protein).
Manufacturers have been able to legally avoid identifying specific ingredients by lumping them in a class, such as spices, flavorings, or coloring. Or they have been able to legally avoid mentioning them altogether if they qualify as incidental additives. But even with the lax labeling laws, food recalls for unlabeled allergens have skyrocketed in the last decade.
Wouldn’t it be great to have clear, complete labels? Wouldn’t it be great to have more understanding about food allergies? To have doctors and friends who understand? Well, good news is on the horizon! Beginning January 1, 2006, federal law requires foods labels in the U.S. to clearly identify all major food allergens in specific, plain language. The FDA recognized that food allergies in the U.S. are a big problem, sending about 30,000 people rushing to emergency rooms each year. About 5 percent of young children in the U.S. are affected by food allergies. Even though kids can be allergic to almost anything, about 90 percent of all allergies are to only 8 major foods or food groups (eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soybeans, tree nuts, and wheat).
The new labels must list the common name of these items, if the food contains any ingredient derived from them. The label also must specify which food in a group (which nut or which shellfish, for instance).
These requirements come from the 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. The act also calls for new rules concerning gluten-free labeling within 4 years, to address the growing problem of celiac disease. These labeling changes are essential, but in some ways I am most excited about the research and education agenda.
The act calls for enhancing and coordinating our basic science research into food allergies. It also calls for improved collection and publication of national data on prevention and treatment of food allergies, on how many people have food allergies, and on how this changes over time. And there is an ambitious education plan as well, including educating physicians and other health care providers. Perhaps these steps will be a major turning point in our understanding, and handling of this important problem.
What’s your experience with food allergies? What changes would you like to see in how food allergies are handled? By doctors? By schools? By friends and relatives? By restaurants? By food manufacturers? Why do you think food allergies are increasing?