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Demystifying Food Allergy Labels continued...

About 2% of American adults and about 5% of infants and young children are affected by food allergies. The FDA estimates that allergic reactions to food cause 30,000 emergency room visits, 2,000 hospitalizations, and 150 deaths each year in the U.S. and indirectly affect millions of families, teachers, and caregivers.

Separate from the advisory labeling, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires that FDA-regulated foods labeled after Jan. 1, 2006, list in plain English all ingredients that are, or are derived from, the eight most common food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Together they account for about 90% of food allergies, according to the FDA.

Food Safety

Industry groups and FDA officials emphasized that advisory labels are not a replacement for "good manufacturing practices" that curb the risk of cross-contamination.

Alison Bodor, vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Confectioners Association, urged the FDA to establish allergen "thresholds," which attempt to gauge what levels of an allergen can safely be present in a food without causing an allergic reaction.

She cautioned that thorough cleaning or using separate equipment entirely is unrealistic for many manufacturers, and that despite the vagueness of some companies' warnings, people should heed them carefully.

Public advocates also testified about the problems allergy sufferers face daily trying to find safe food for themselves and their families.

Anne Carter of the Food Allergy Group of Northern Virginia said some group members are playing Russian roulette with food labels; teenagers and young adults are especially at risk when they start to make food decisions for themselves, she says.

FAAN member Lisa Punt shared a story about her now-teenaged son, who has a severe nut allergy. She recalled how she made sure to have plenty of candy corn at past Halloweens because it was one of the few foods her son could safely eat. But it soon became impossible to find candy corn without advisory warnings.

"Does candy corn really have walnuts, pecans, or cashews in it? Nobody knows," she said.

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