Reading food labels is a critical exercise for the growing number of individuals who have a food allergy, now estimated to affect 2 percent of adults and 5 percent of infants and children in the United States. Food allergic reactions are often unpredictable in their occurrence and severity and can occur after consuming trace amounts of the food protein. Approximately 30,000 people require emergency room treatment and 150 Americans die each year due to allergic reactions to food. At present, there is no cure for food allergies. Avoidance of the inciting food thus remains essential in disease management. Reading food labels is an important part of everyday life for adults and children with food allergies.
In 2004, Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) to make it easier for food allergic consumers and their caregivers to identify and avoid foods that contain major food allergens. Effective January 1, 2006 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began to require that food labels clearly state whether food products contain any ingredients that contain protein derived from the eight major allergenic foods. These include milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts (such as almonds, cashew, and walnuts), fish, shellfish (such as crab, lobster, and shrimp), soy, and wheat. Although there are many other food allergens, the above foods account for more than 90 percent of all documented food allergies in the United States and represent the foods most likely to result in severe or life-threatening reactions.
This law applies only to packaged foods that are regulated by the FDA. Fresh fruits and vegetables are exempt, as are refined oils derived from one of the eight major food allergens. Meat, poultry, and egg products are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The labeling requirements also extend to retail and food service establishments, such as bakeries and carry out restaurants, that package and label products for human consumption. However, the requirements do not apply to foods that are placed in a container in response to a consumer’s request, such as the box used to provide a deli item ordered by a consumer.
The FDA also requires that manufacturers list ingredients in terms that are understandable to the average consumer. This new labeling will be especially helpful to children who must learn to recognize the presence of substances they must avoid. For example, if a product contains the milk-derived protein, casein, the product’s label will have to use the term “milk” in addition to the term “casein.” It is also required that the type of allergen is specified. For example, the specific type of tree nut (e.g., almond, walnut), fish (e.g., cod, tuna), or shellfish (e.g., crab, shrimp) must be included on the food label. Flavorings, colorings, or spices that contain a major food allergen must also be identified.
Although the new food-labeling law is a significant advance for people with food allergies, it also raises some questions. The law requires food allergens to be identified even in the smallest amounts. As a result, many food manufacturers are listing any and all possible food allergens, even if the allergens might not be present. This may make it difficult for people with food allergies to discriminate if a product contains enough milk or soy, for example, to cause an allergic reaction. Consequently, studies show that consumers with food allergy are actually becoming less avoidant of products with advisory labels.
A recent study confirmed that numerous food products have advisory labeling that can be confusing for consumers with food allergy. For example, only crustacean shellfish are included under this legislation, whereas mollusks (such as squid, clams, mussels, and oysters) are excluded from regulatory labeling. In addition, nonspecific terms (such as spices, natural flavors, and flavors) are frequently used without being linked to an allergen or ingredient. Other labeling uncertainties include the lack of identification of the type of flour (e.g., soy, wheat, rice) or tree nut contained in a food. Increasing the specificity of advisory labels can improve the consumer’s ability to choose safe food products without unnecessary dietary restrictions.
Although the laws designed to aid the food allergic individual are not perfect, they do help to identify potential allergens and food allergy sufferers should make all efforts to read food labels carefully.