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House Passes Legislation Requiring Food Manufacturers to List Common Food Allergens

New York, Jul 20, 2004

A bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday will mandate changes to labeling of food allergens, many of which can cause deadly reactions. The bill, titled the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), has already been passed in the Senate and is expected to be signed into law by President Bush soon. The Act is supported by the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Health and Human Services.

Currently, food products may use voluntary labeling standards indicating ingredients with potential allergens. The FALCPA would require food manufacturers to clearly state if a product contains any of the eight major food allergens that are responsible for over 90% of all allergic reactions. The most common food allergens, known as the “top 8,” are fish, shellfish, milk, egg, soy, wheat, peanuts, and tree nuts such as walnuts, cashews, etc. The bill also calls for the FDA to issue final regulations defining "gluten-free" and permitting the voluntary labeling of products as 'gluten-free' no later than 2008.

According to the National Institutes of Health, true food allergy affects six to seven million Americans (approximately two percent of the U.S. population) and four to eight percent of young children. Symptoms of a food allergy are highly individual and usually begin within minutes to a few hours after eating the offending food. People with true, confirmed food allergies must avoid the offending food altogether.

"Foods that are safe for most Americans can be deadly for others,” said U.S. 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."

The Food Safety and Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has supported practices that promote accurate informative product labeling including voluntary statements on labels that alert people who have sensitivities or intolerances to the presence of specific ingredients. For example, a phrase such as “Contains: milk, wheat gluten, soy” has been accepted by the agency on labeling immediately following the ingredients statement. Additionally, further clarification of the source of a specific ingredient in a parenthetical statement in the ingredients statement on labeling, e.g., “whey (from milk),” was encouraged as a means of informing consumers who may be alerted to a more recognizable term. The FALCPA will allow food-allergic consumers to much more easily identify a product's ingredients.

Until now, the food industry could follow voluntary food allergen labeling guidelines, such as those issued by the Food Allergy Issues Alliance — a consortium of 18 food industry trade associations and related interests:

  • Identify major food allergens: crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, soy, tree nuts and wheat.
  • Advocate the use of terms commonly understood by consumers for major food allergens within, or in immediate proximity to, the ingredient declaration, to provide clear communication with the food-allergic consumer. Examples of ingredient terms commonly understood by consumers include, "eggs" and "milk."
  • Major food allergens should be disclosed regardless of the fact that they may otherwise be exempted from declaration (e.g. as part of a flavor, or as an incidental additive or processing aid). Food processors should carry this information forward to the ingredient declarations on labels of foods that use those ingredients.
  • Establish guidelines for conditions when the use of supplemental allergen statements is appropriate.

 Homeland Defense and Security Standardization Collaborative