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Food Labels to ID Allergy-Related Ingredients

New Labeling of Food Ingredients Will Help Those With Deadly Allergies
WebMD Health News

July 21, 2004 -- Congress has approved a bill designed to help people with common food allergies and some food-related diseases better identify dangerous ingredients on grocery labels.

The bill requires food manufacturers to make labels that will identify allergens in easy-to-understand language. They will have to state on their products eight foods most likely to cause allergic reactions and autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease.

Up to 11 million Americans suffer from food allergies, and approximately 100 people, most of them children, die each year from food-related reactions, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID.)

Under the measure, beginning in 2006 food labels must plainly identify milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy if they are present. The bill also requires listing of the ingredients even when they are used as flavorings, additives or spices. Manufacturers now are allowed to use the general term "natural flavors" for ingredients present in minute amounts.

Supporters say everyday language is key to helping consumers avoid dangerous allergens since labels sometimes use scientific terms for certain ingredients.

For example, the word "albumin," the protein which can cause reactions to eggs, can mean little to a patient told by doctors to avoid eggs.

"Who would guess that a common popcorn brand would use the word 'natural flavors' to mean peanuts," says Alexandra Jaffee, a 12-year-old from New Canaan, Conn. who is one of an estimated 3 million Americans severely allergic to peanuts.

Rep. Nita Lowey, (D-N.Y.), one of the bill's authors, calls its provisions "common sense." "Consumers will no longer have to wonder whether an allergen is hidden in the product," she says.

The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives Tuesday night. An identical version passed the U.S. Senate in March. Health and Human Services Secretary, Tommy G. Thompson, endorsed the measure in the spring and President Bush is expected to sign it into law.

Food-allergen labeling has been an issue in Congress for at least four years, though progress on a bill was stalled largely because of opposition from food manufacturers.

The National Food Processors Association issued a statement offering support for the bill.

"While this legislation is not perfect, it is a step forward for uniform, clear, and consumer-friendly food allergen labeling. It will protect food-allergic consumers, and assist their caregivers," John R. Cady, the group's president, says in a statement.

People with celiac disease also welcomed the bill's passage, saying it will help them avoid wheat, which can cause sufferers to experience bouts of diarrhea, constipation, or skin rashes. Up to 1% of the adult U.S. population has celiac disease, according to a recent census statement issued by the National Institutes of Health.

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