Know your labels: The law and food allergies

April 3, 2008

  • Approximately 6.9 million Americans are allergic to seafood, and 3.3 million are allergic to peanuts or tree nuts .
  • About 3.1 million children in the U.S. have food allergies. – According to studies conducted by the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), peanut allergies doubled in children between 1997 and 2002.
  • In the U.S., food is the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside the hospital setting.
  • There is presently no known cure for food allergies.
  • Even trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction. And allergens don’t have to be ingested to cause a reaction; skin contact or inhalation also can trigger it. According to research conducted at Mt. Sinai hospital in New York, people should wait at least four hours after consuming a food allergen before kissing someone who is allergic to that food.
  • A FAAN review of food allergy fatalities found that most of the people had never had a severe allergic reaction until the one that caused their death.
  • Scientists don’t know why allergies are increasing.

In an effort to help people avoid the health risks posed by food allergens, Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004. The law applies to all foods regulated by FDA, both domestic and imported, that were labeled on or after January 1, 2006. (FDA regulates all foods except meat, poultry, and certain egg products.)

Before this law, the labels of foods made from two or more ingredients were required to list all ingredients by their common, or usual, names. The names of some ingredients, however, do not clearly identify their source.

Now, the labels must clearly identify the source of all ingredients that are — or are derived from — the eight most common food allergens. As a result, food labels help allergic consumers to identify offending foods or ingredients so they can more easily avoid them.

Food products labeled before January 1, 2006 were not required to be re-labeled under the law of 2004. However, these foods may still be on store shelves — so be sure to take that into consideration while shopping, and always use special care when reading labels.

While more than 160 foods can cause allergic reactions in people with food allergies, the law identifies the eight most common allergenic foods. These foods account for 90 percent of food allergic reactions, and are the food sources from which many other ingredients are derived.

The eight foods identified by the law are: Milk, Eggs, Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod), Crustacean shellfish (e.g. crab, lobster, shrimp), Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans), Peanuts, Wheat, Soybeans. These eight foods, and any ingredient that contains protein derived from one or more of them, are designated as “major food allergens” by the law.

The law requires that food labels identify the food source of all major food allergens. Unless the food source of a major food allergen is part of the ingredient’s common or usual name (or is already identified in the ingredient list), it must be included in one of two ways.

  1. The name of the food source of a major food allergen must appear: In parentheses following the name of the ingredient. Examples: “lecithin (soy),” “flour (wheat),” and “whey (milk)” -OR-
  2.  Immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a “contains” statement.
    Example: “Contains Wheat, Milk, and Soy.”

Symptoms of food allergies typically appear from within a few minutes to two hours after a person has eaten the food to which he or she is allergic.

Allergic reactions can include:
Flushed skin or rash
Tingling or itchy sensation in the mouth
Face, tongue, or lip swelling
Vomiting and/or diarrhea
Abdominal cramps
 Coughing or wheezing
Dizziness and/or lightheadedness
Swelling of the throat and vocal cords
Difficulty breathing
Loss of consciousness 

Persons may still be allergic to — and have serious reactions to — foods other than the eight foods identified by the law. So, always be sure to read the food label’s ingredient list carefully to avoid the food allergens in question.


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