Translating labels into plain English soon could get a lot easier for more than 11 million Americans with food allergies, including at least 3 million with peanut or tree nut allergies and 2.2 million with celiac disease, who can?t eat gluten or wheat.
The prospects are good for the passage in Congress of a bill requiring the food industry to identify in common language eight major food allergens on labels. The bill would go into effect Jan. 1, 2006, if passed this session.
Titled the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (S.R. 741), the bill sailed unanimously through the U.S. Senate on March 8. The House version, H.R. 8674, sponsored by Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., awaits action in the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Among its provisions:
- The major food allergens are defined as milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans.
- The presence of a major food allergen must be declared in the ingredients list or after the word, contains, followed by the name of the major food allergen. For example: ?contains milk.?
- Use of a technical term in the ingredients list must be followed by the common or usual word in a parenthetical statement. For example: casein (milk) or albumen (egg).
- Major food allergens that are present in flavors, colors, spices or incidental additives also must be identified.
- The specific type of fish, crustacean shellfish or tree nut must be identified. For example, bass, flounder or cod; crab, lobster or shrimp; or almond, pecan or walnut.
- Requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to produce a study on cross-contamination and the use of advisory or ?may contain? labeling in the food industry.
- Requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services to issue a rule defining and permitting the use of the term gluten-free on labels.
The bill has been in the works in Congress since 2000, but has picked up steam as allergy prevalence and awareness grows.
The food industry attempted to fend off regulation with a voluntary guideline program sponsored by the Grocery Manufacturers of America. Some manufacturers, including Kraft Foods, General Mills, Hershey and Masterfoods, complied with the voluntary guidelines, but participation is not 100 percent.
Anne Mu?oz-Furlong, founder of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network of Fairfax, Va., describes the legislation as ?a huge step forward. ? We need labels written in language that 7-year-olds can understand.?
Identifying allergens in natural flavors also is important, Mu?oz-Furlong says. ?Quite a few products have natural flavors with milk in them. Now all you can do is call the company and hope they will tell you.?
Last year, FAAN issued 100 alerts regarding hidden allergens in food.
A growing concern
The incidence of peanut allergy in children doubled between 1997 and 2002 to 600,000, according to a study published in the December 2003 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
Celiac disease is also on the rise, judging by a February 2003 survey by Alessio Fasano, M.D., at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. Fasano?s survey estimates that 1 in 133 Americans, or 2.2 million, have celiac disease, although about 40 percent do not report symptoms.
Seafood allergy affects 6.5 million people and tree nut/peanut allergy affects 3 million. Another 1.5 million people are allergic to milk, egg, wheat or soy, for a total of 11 million affected by the eight common allergies, according to FAAN.
Enjoy Life Foods, an allergy-free and gluten-free bakery founded in 2003, estimates the gluten- and wheat-free market to be at least $140 million annually. Beth Hillson, president of Gluten-Free Pantry, says sales grew 33 percent in 2003 over 2002 because more and more people are being diagnosed with food allergy and celiac disease.
Proponents of the legislation have worked hard to accommodate industry concerns during the negotiation process. ?We are hearing very positive things,? says Andrea Lovario, co-chair of the legislative project of the American Celiac Task Force in Baltimore. She is optimistic the bill will be passed without any major changes.
Although the bill mentions only wheat and not rye and barley, for instance, ?It does get us about 90 percent or more covered,? Lovario says. Barley would usually be identified as a declared ingredient or by the presence of malt, which almost always indicates the presence of barley. Regina Hildwine, senior director of food labeling standards of the National Food Processors Association in Washington, D.C., says the group supports the proposed legislation but would like to see some things tweaked a bit.
?One of the changes we are looking to advance is to be able to use certain qualifying words,? Hildwine says. ?We should be able to say that whey is a milk ingredient or that whey comes from milk. Rather than to say whey is milk ? our members care about it for technical accuracy.? The next effective label compliance date is Jan. 1, 2006, the date the bill is to go into effect. That means the bill must be OK?d by July or the industry won?t have its allotted transition period and the effective date could be pushed back to 2008.
Victoria Gits is a free-lance writer and editor in Denver.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 7/p. 24