In a matter of months, food manufacturers operating in Europe face tough new rules on food allergens that put an end to the 20 year old '25 per cent' rule, aiming to provide the consumer, increasingly stricken by food allergies, to easily identify potential allergens. The US took a significant step in the same direction this week when the US House Committee on Energy & Commerce gave its approval of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, which requires food manufacturers to clearly state if a product contains any of the eight major food allergens responsible for over 90 per cent of all allergic reactions.
These allergens are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy. The bill was approved in a voice vote by the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act is supported by the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services.
Recent studies estimate that over 7 million Americans have a food allergy; the number of children with peanut allergy has doubled in the past five years. Each year, over 250 Americans die due to the ingestion of allergenic foods, and 30,000 receive life-saving treatment in emergency rooms.
Organisations such as the Food Allergy Initiative (FAI) have consistently argued that the only way for someone with food allergies to keep from having a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction is to completely avoid foods and products that contain the allergens. They believe that this bill is vital, as they claim that food-allergic consumers are often forced to decipher labels for every food product they purchase.
Consumers, says the FAI, are assumed to know that albumin refers to egg, caseinate to milk, textured vegetable protein to soy. In addition, the phrase 'natural flavours' could refer to peanuts, tree nuts, or any other food. A recent study at Mount Sinai School of Medicine demonstrated that after reading a series of labels only 7 per cent of parents of children with milk allergy were able to correctly identify products that contained milk and 22 per cent of parents of children with soy allergy were able to correctly identify products that contain soy.
"Foods that are safe for most Americans can be deadly for others," said US Representative Nita Lowey, one of the authors of the bill. "Food-allergic consumers depend on food labels to make life-and- death decisions, yet they are forced to crack a code of complicated scientific terms for every food product they eat. It's time for Congress to end this dangerous game by passing my bill to require everyday language and complete food ingredient lists. The Energy and Commerce Committee did a tremendous service for these individuals by passing this bill."
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act will allow food-allergic consumers to more easily identify a product's ingredients. In addition, the bill will benefit the estimated 2 million Americans with celiac disease. The bill calls for the Food and Drug Administration to issue final regulations defining "gluten-free" and permitting the voluntary labelling of products as 'gluten-free' no later than 2008.
The US act follows the example set by Europe, which confronted the food industry last year with new rules on food allergen ingredients that come into force in November 2004. Food manufacturers will have to list all sub-ingredients of compound ingredients, which means that allergens cannot be 'hidden', heralding an end to the 20 year old 25 per cent rule with all ingredients labelled, regardless of the quantity contained in the finished food.
Providing justification for the new directive, a panel at the European Food Safety Authority earlier this year claimed there is ample evidence to justify the mandatory inclusion on food labels of the most common food allergen ingredients and their derivatives: cereals containing gluten, fish, crustaceans, egg, peanut, soy, milk and dairy products including lactose, nuts, celery, mustard, sesame seed, and sulphites.