Natural Foods Merchandiser

Food allergy labels explained

The federal law that regulates labeling of the most common allergens hasn’t changed much since it was passed in 2004 and went into full effect Jan. 1, 2006. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) lists eight major foods allergens -– milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans –- and states the requirements that manufacturers must follow in listing those ingredients on the labels of packaged food.

Separately, the Food and Drug Administration, the federal agency charged with enforcing the law, is conducting a safety assessment on gluten in connection with a proposal to define the term "gluten-free," according to Susan Cahill, an FDA spokesperson. Adoption of the law, once finalized, must be approved by Congress.

Label wording
The law requires that the word “Contains,” followed by the name of the food source of all the major allergens used as ingredients, is printed immediately after the list of ingredients. For example, if “sodium caseinate,” (milk protein) “whey,” “egg yolks” and “natural peanut flavor” are declared in a product’s ingredients list, the “Contains” statement must read "Contains milk, egg, and peanuts." -- according to the FDA.

When the 2004 FALCPA was passed, legislators cited a study showing that parents of children with food allergies were unable to identify ingredients that contain food allergens. The Food Allergen Act now mandates that ingredients in foods be listed by their “common or usual name.” Your customers should be able to recognize most common allergy ingredients, but may need help with some. Be sure to train your staff on sources of allergies and how to spot them in a label.

Labels on some packaged foods should contain additional information, including what allergens the product doesn't contain. Some labels provide allergen information in addition to the law’s requirements. That’s acceptable to the FDA. “Manufacturers may voluntarily add more information about allergens provided the statements are truthful and not misleading,” Cianci says. The FDA doesn't keep a list of packaged foods that contain allergens.

Flavors, colors and additives are also included in the law.

Requirements for retailers
The requirements are directed at manufacturers of packaged foods, but also apply to private labels. They don't apply to food that is placed in a wrapper or container ordered by a customer, – such as the paper or box used for a sandwich prepared for a specific customer.

The eight allergens and their label requirements/ common names
MILK: The term “non-dairy” is allowed by the FDA, but if the food contains lactose, the ingredients list must be followed by “Contains milk.”

EGGS: The FALCPA does not directly cover egg products because they're regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

FISH: The species must be declared - for example, bass, flounder, cod. Click here to see the FDA provides guidance in its seafood list.

CRUSTACEAN SHELLFISH: The same rules that apply to fish apply to crustacean shellfish such as crab, lobster or shrimp. According to the most recent FDA guidance issued in 2006, molluscan shellfish such as oysters, clams, mussels or scallops are not considered a major food allergen.

TREE NUTS: The 2006 FDA guidance expanded the definition of nuts to include tree nuts and provided a list that includes common as well as scientific names. The list of common names includes almond, beech nut, Brazil nut, butternut, cashew, chestnut, Chinquapin, coconut, filbert/hazelnut, ginko nut, hickory nut, Lichee nut, macadamia nut/bush nut, pecan, pine nut/pinon nut, Pili nut, pistachio, shea nut, and walnut.

PEANUTS: Important to note is that the law doesn't require product labels to explain if the facility where the packaged food was produced works with allergy -containing foods. So manufacturers are not required to say “produced in a facility that works with peanuts.” Be sure to follow up with your supplier if you're curious.

WHEAT: According to the 2006 guidance, the term “wheat” includes common wheat, durum wheat, club wheat, spelt, semolina, einkorn, emmer, kamut and triticale.

SOYBEANS: Can also be called soy or soya.

The gluten-free proposal
The FDA is proposing to define the term “gluten-free” for voluntary use in the labeling of foods, to mean that the food does not contain any of the following:

  • An ingredient that is any species of the "prohibited grains" wheat, rye, barley, or a crossbred hybrid of these grains.

  • An ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain and that has not been processed to remove gluten (for instance wheat flour)

  • An ingredient that is derived from a prohibited grain and that has been processed so that there is more than 20 parts per million gluten in the food.

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