By Kristen Chandler
Whether you or your child has food allergies, you know how important it is to read food labels. Allergens can be hidden, and manufacturers sometimes change their ingredients or change their manufacturing processes. You also know how confusing and even frustrating label reading can be. Just when you think you’ve found a safe food, you get to the end of the ingredient list and see the words “manufactured on the same equipment as” or “may contain traces of” followed by the very allergens that you must avoid.
According to the Food Allergen Label and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004, any food that contains a major allergen (eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts or wheat) is required have the allergen listed plainly, whether in the ingredient list or by stating “contains” followed by the allergen.
The “may contain” warnings and those like them are known as advisory labels. They are not required, but manufacturers use them as a precaution to consumers that allergens could be present. These labels may mean the product could have possibly been contaminated by an allergen, but these labels are really unclear as to how much of a risk the allergens really are.
On November 30, 2016, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a draft report entitled Finding a Path to Safety in Food Allergy: Assessment of the Global Burden, Causes, Prevention, Management, and Public Policy. One of the issues the scientists addressed in this report was that food labels need to be clearer about the level of risk the allergens present. One scientist was concerned that some consumers may ignore the advisory labels and possibly put themselves at risk, since oftentimes these labels are only precautionary.
The report proposed that precautionary labels should instead be risk-based, meaning a safety level would need to be determined for different allergens. Rather than the “may contain traces of” label, they advised determining just how much of a “trace” of the allergen that people with allergies could tolerate, if any. This form of labeling would help to clear up consumer confusion. Foods that they avoided in the past because of fear of contamination may show that there is in fact no contamination. However, with a clearer labeling system, foods with labels that have been ignored in the past may now be avoided by consumers if the risk is too high. A spokeswoman for the FDA, Megan McSeveney, stated that the report is being reviewed and that they were very curious about the Academies’ scientific approach to their labeling recommendations.
Other recommendations made in the report were:
- Find a better way to inform new parents about preventing allergies in newborns.
- Develop a way to educate consumers and healthcare professionals on the differences between actual food allergies and other food disorders like sensitives and intolerances that are sometimes wrongly interpreted as food allergies.
- Find a better way to train food servers and other restaurant workers to help people avoid food allergens.
- Develop a better way to train first responders on how to identify and treat allergic reactions and on the proper use of epinephrine.
If this proposed new form of labeling is accepted, it would cut down on confusion. On the other hand, some people may continue to play it safe and completely avoid foods that may have been contaminated or could contain traces of an allergen.
What do you think? Do you avoid foods with advisory labeling, or do you consume food per the required labels? Do you think this proposed labeling system is a good idea or a bad one? Let us know in the comments.