Food Allergy Labels Too Vague
FDA Hearing Examines Need to Simplify Allergy Warning Labels on Food
Sept. 16, 2008 -- Carefully reading food labels might not be enough to keep
food allergy sufferers safe,
according to the FDA.
The agency held a public hearing Tuesday on food manufacturers' use of
"advisory labeling," which indicates that a product could
unintentionally contain trace amounts of an allergen, such as peanuts.
Statements like "may contain (allergen)" or "produced on shared
equipment that processes (allergen)" are common.
These warnings are voluntary and unregulated, and they may only baffle the
consumer who reads them. Another example: "Produced in a facility with an
allergy control plan. The possibility of contact with allergenic ingredients
has been minimized. May still contain trace amount of (allergen)."
"Advisory warnings are confusing, inconsistent, and do not provide
adequate information to make smart and safe decisions," said Scott Mandell,
CEO and president of Enjoy Life Natural Brands, which offers gluten-free and
The FDA said it wants to develop a long-term strategy to help manufacturers
use more truthful, clear, and uniform advisory labels. The agency has addressed
the inconsistent use of advisory labeling in the past, and different groups
have developed some of their own guidelines, but the public hearing represents
a push toward a more unified approach.
Demystifying Food Allergy Labels
A 2004 law requires manufacturers to list major allergens used as
ingredients in a product, but there is no labeling requirement for separate
products that might come into contact with allergens during manufacturing.
Equipment and facilities shared by allergen-containing foods can cause
cross-contamination, where trace amounts of an allergen unintentionally end up
in a separate product, putting some consumers at risk for allergic reactions.
Many choose to avoid these foods altogether, although increased use of vague
advisory labels leave consumers with tough decisions to make.
Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO of the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis
Network (FAAN), said there are more than 30 different formulations of advisory
labeling, making it impossible to determine which companies use advisories to
truthfully represent risks and which companies put the warnings on virtually
every product to avoid liability.
"Physicians, parents, and teens are ignoring these 'may
contain' statements because they appear on so many products," she said.
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.