When your child is diagnosed with a food allergy, label reading becomes a force of habit. You may have noticed that some packages say “Contains Tree Nuts” or “May Contain Milk” or “Processed on Equipment That Also Processes Peanuts.” You may have also noticed that some ingredients are in bold letters.
How thoughtful of the food manufacturers to alert you to allergens!
Actually, food packages are required by law to point out common allergens in the ingredients, but buyer beware: it’s not nearly as comprehensive as one might think.
What Is FALCPA?
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, or FALCPA, was signed into law in 2004 and officially took effect on January 1, 2006. FALCPA requires food manufacturers to label the Top 8 food allergens in one of two ways:
- By listing the allergens in bold letters in the ingredients list, placing the common name in parenthesis after a more technical name. For example: whey (milk).
- By listing the allergens after the word “Contains.” For example: Contains milk and peanuts.
Now, 11 years later, we have grown accustomed to looking for allergen warnings on labels. But it’s important to note that manufacturers can choose from either of these methods to list the Top 8 allergens. If you look only for bold letters, you may miss the allergy warning on a food label. It’s best to thoroughly read (and re-read) the label to be sure you don’t miss an allergen.
Also, the law has zeroed in on the Top 8 allergens because they are responsible for approximately 90 percent of all instances of food allergies. The FDA says there are over 160 foods that have the potential to cause an allergic reaction. At the moment it is unclear whether they ever intend to broaden the list of foods required to be emphasized on the label. If you or your child is allergic to a food outside of the Top 8, let us know how this affects the way you read labels in the comments below.
Potential Confusion Caused By Advisory Labels
You’ve no doubt come across advisory labels too. These labels alert consumers to the fact that cross contamination may have occurred with food allergens during the making of the product, even though the product itself contains no allergens in its ingredient list.
Advisory labels are unregulated and are thus written in many different ways. A study in the UK found that parents were more likely to purchase products with vague warnings, such as “Made in a facility that uses nuts,” than more direct warnings like “May contain nuts.” However, the actual amount of nuts found in various products had no correlation to the wording used on the packaging. In short, the vague advisory labels can give a false impression of security.
Advisory labels are not required by law under FALCPA, but the fact that many manufacturers choose to include them on packages gives the impression that they are. Don’t assume a product comes with no risk of cross-contamination just because an advisory label is missing. Even trace amounts of an allergen can cause an anaphylactic reaction.
Instead, it’s best to research the company. Contact customer support to ask if the product in question is manufactured on the same machinery that handles your allergens, or if those allergens are present in the factory at all.
What’s your opinion of FALCPA and allergen warning labels? Does the law do enough to protect consumers with food allergies, or is there room for improvement? Share your thoughts with the community in the comments below.