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Congress Moves Toward Mandatory Labels for Most Common Food Allergens

Labeling rules likely for food allergies by next week,0,6556292.sto

The Wall Street Journal
July 7 2004

In a welcome development for millions of Americans who suffer from food allergies, the House of Representatives is expected to pass a bill next week that will require food makers to label, in plain English, eight of the most troublesome ingredients: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. The eight account for roughly 90 percent of the nation's food allergies.

The Senate passed the bill unanimously in March, and President Bush is expected to sign it into law. A few companies already label their food this way, but all would have to adopt the new practices by Jan. 1, 2006.

Food allergies are a significant and growing problem. Fully 3.5 percent of Americans are allergic to some type of food, according to Hugh Sampson, director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

Allergic reactions to food range from relatively mild skin swelling to respiratory or heart failure. In the most severe cases, anaphylaxis, a violent allergic reaction, can cause death in five to 15 minutes. While an immediate injection of adrenaline can prevent most deaths, there is no antidote.

About 30,000 people a year require emergency-room treatment for food allergies, according to the bill, and about 150 people die.

The legislation is a victory for plain-spokenness. Food companies will have to print the allergens' common names, either by themselves or in parentheses after the scientific name. That means words like ``casein'' won't disappear from ingredients lists on packaging _ but the word ``milk'' must also appear with it. The same is true if there's ghee, lactalbumin, rennet casein, lactoglobulin or whey, all of which are derived from milk. Albumin, livetin, ovalbumin, ovomucin, ovomucoid and ovovitellin would be labeled as ``egg.''

The bill also wipes out a regulatory loophole that allowed spices, flavors and colors to be named collectively. If any of the three contain an allergen, it must be labeled. Consumers, for instance, will no longer have to wonder whether ``natural flavorings'' or ``natural ingredients'' might set off an allergic reaction. The legislation, called the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, would be the first law ever enacted specifically to deal with food labeling for allergy sufferers.

The legislation also instructs the Department of Health and Human Services to define what constitutes ``gluten-free'' food and how it might be labeled in the future. That's a nod to the estimated three million or so Americans who sufferer from celiac disease, a digestive disorder that's triggered by gluten, a common protein found in wheat, barley and rye. The disease causes a variety of symptoms including diarrhea, cramps and severe pain, and can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, osteoporosis and other serious illnesses.

The current legislation isn't perfect, critics say. For instance it doesn't regulate the problem of ``cross contact'' of food during manufacturing. (That's when one assembly line produces two different products, one of which contains allergens that could get into the
other.) Critics say this is a problem for people who are hypersensitive, since they can unknowingly consume a food that triggers a reaction. ``You get sick if you eat a crumb of bread,'' explains Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the center for celiac research at the University of Maryland. The bill would require HHS to collect data on allergic reactions possibly caused by cross contact, and submit a report to Congress.

The bill was many years in the making. Similar legislation was first introduced in 2000, but stalled. Food makers argued that the industry's voluntary labeling system, rolled out in September 2001, would be adequate. However last year, the legislation gained bipartisan backing, spurred by consumer. ``Once people understood the issue, we all realized that there was an important role for Congress to play,'' says Rep. Nita Lowey (D., N.Y.), one of the bill's primary sponsors.

Several large food makers, including Kraft Foods Inc. and General Mills Inc., are already complying with voluntary industry labeling guidelines that are similar to the requirements in the bill, according to Stephanie Childs of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, an industry group.

Without plain-English labels, shoppers with allergies find it hard to load their carts confidently. A 2002 Mount Sinai School of Medicine study that tested the knowledge of parents of severely allergic children concluded: ``Most parents are unable to identify common allergenic food ingredients.''

Allison Jacobsen of Morristown, N.J., says food shopping can take several hours, since her 17-year-old daughter has allergic reactions to eggs, fish, shellfish, nuts and dairy products. To guard against life-threatening allergic reactions, all labels must be carefully read for potentially lethal ingredients which are often masked in scientific lingo.

``Every time my daughter eats something, I worry,'' she says. ``There are no second chances with food allergies.''