Food Giants Agree to Tougher Labeling Requirements on Food Ingredients

Food Giants Agree to Tougher Labeling Requirements
on Food Ingredients

Food Makers Agree on Tighter Labeling Guidelines
New York Times
May 31, 2001


Bracing against the specter of tighter regulation, many of the nation's
largest food companies have agreed to specify when the foods they sell
contain even tiny amounts of everyday ingredients that can cause potentially
fatal allergic reactions.

At the behest of big food makers like Kraft, Hershey, General Mills and
Pillsbury, the two largest food industry groups are shaping new voluntary
guidelines for the nutrition labels on processed foods. The guidelines will
put more information on the face of hundreds of products eaten by millions
of consumers and go well beyond what the law does to prevent
allergy-provoking ingredients like milk, eggs and nuts from appearing in
foods without being identified on the label.

For the roughly seven million Americans who suffer from food allergies,
even minuscule amounts of these allergy triggers, or allergens, can cause
severe reactions within minutes, or even be lethal. But under the current
law, manufacturers can add very small amounts of allergens as incidental
ingredients without mentioning them on the packaging, listing them instead
under the innocuous-sounding moniker `natural flavors.`

The industry's guidelines are being developed as Democrats in the House
and Senate prepare to introduce legislation that would impose even stiffer
requirements on the food manufacturers. The bills would require minute
amounts of allergens to be described on labels and give the Food and
Drug Administration the authority to fine companies that fail to comply,
something the agency cannot currently do.

``We simply can't rely on the industry's good faith to protect consumers
with potentially fatal food allergies,'' said Senator Edward M. Kennedy,
who is sponsoring one of the bills. ``Trust only gets us so far.''

Food industry officials said they adopted the new guidelines to eliminate
the need for any additional legislation and show lawmakers that everything
found on the inside of their products is described clearly on the outside as

``We'll definitely be doing some food allergy 101 on the Hill,'' said Lisa
D. Katic, science director for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a
group of about 140 food companies, including Kraft, Nestle and General

In addition to identifying trace additives, companies adhering to the the
new guidelines are supposed to list ingredients by their common names.
Consumer groups have long complained that ingredients are often identified
on labels by obscure formal names, like ''casein'' for milk or ''albumin''
for eggs. The new information is likely to be in the ingredients list found
on every packaged food, but manufacturers will have a fair amount of
latitude in making the new information fit the many shapes and sizes of
their packages.

``Consumers want more information about ingredients in products,'' said
Stephen Milton, a spokesman for Unilever, which owns Ben & Jerry's ice
cream and Entenmanns baked goods, among other brands. ``We have to
meet that. Transparency for us is key.''

Though the guidelines are entirely voluntary, industry officials argue that
companies have a strong financial incentive to adopt them. Allergic
consumers may not be a huge part of the market, but they are hardly
negligible, either. Many of the afflicted are children whose parents do the
shopping and assiduously keep any allergy-inducing products out of the
house and away from the whole family.

Once a few companies start catering to those customers by providing more
detailed accounts of their products, others may have to follow suit or risk
developing a reputation for being unconcerned, or even misleading, the trade
groups argue.

``We are hoping that the marketplace drives this issue,'' said Regina
Hildwine, food labeling director of the National Food Processors
Association, which represents about 400 food companies. ``Allergic
consumers are going to choose the product that gives them more information.
After all, it is their safety that is at stake and nobody's more aware of it than
they are.''

Relatively little is known about the cause of food allergies, but more than
30,000 people a year are rushed to emergency rooms around the country
because of them, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma.
And while the reaction, known as anaphylaxis, can be usually be treated
with a shot of epinephrine, food allergies kill as many as 200 people a year.

Most of the illnesses occur in homes or at restaurants, and are not the
fault of a manufacturer. But when it comes to purchasing food in stores,
labels serve as the front line of defense for most consumers, and consumers
sometimes get sick because of incomplete or inaccurate information on a
product's packaging.

Last year, David Parkinson, an 11-year-old New York City resident who
nearly died after taking a sip of milk at the age of 2, gulped down a Saratoga
fruit smoothie. Having grown up scrutinizing labels, David checked but saw
no mention of the trace amounts of milk and egg proteins that were used to
thicken the drink. Because the amounts were so small, the manufacturer was
not required to disclose their presence.

Almost immediately, David's breathing became labored, his chest turned
bright red, he broke out in quarter-sized hives and was rushed to the
emergency room, where he recovered after treatment.

``Our lives are run by the labels,'' said Susan Leavitt, David's mother.
``To have done all the right things and found out that it didn't really
matter, because they had not been up front about what was in there,
really shook our confidence.''

One thing the new packages will not include is a warning label, or a symbol,
prominently declaring that a given product contains allergens. Last May, a
coalition of attorneys general in nine states, from New York to Wyoming,
petitioned the F.D.A. to require such labeling, but food industry officials
worried that the warnings could alarm consumers and scare away business.

There is yet another impetus for food companies to change the labels before
regulators do: recalls. According to the F.D.A., there has been a steady
rise in the amount of food that is pulled from store shelves for failing to
list not just incidental additives - which is legal - but also some primary
ingredients, which is not. The industry hopes that the new guidelines will
make food companies more careful.

``The recalls are a persistent problems that we would like to see go away,''
said Ms. Hildwine.

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