Pressure groups plan to use this year's Food Allergy Awareness Week to promote the need for clear and effective product labeling to the food industry as the allergy labeling legislation deadline approaches, Philippa Nuttall reports.
The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) will hold its eighth annual Food Allergy Awareness Week nationwide during 8-14 May .
The theme of this year's campaign is the need to educate consumers and the food industry about the "serious nature" of food allergies.
Virginia based FAAN estimates that 11 million people in the US - or 1-in-25 Americans - are affected by food allergies, meaning that contact with, or ingestion, of certain foods causes serious, sometimes life-threatening reactions. With no cure for food allergies, avoidance is the only way to prevent a reaction.
This is why pertinent food labeling is imperative in the eyes of the organization.
"For those with food allergies, reading food labels can mean the difference between life or death," said Anne Munoz-Furlong, CEO and founder of FAAN, which, along with other groups and led by Food Allergy Initiative, helped push the Food Allergen and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) though Congress last August.
This bill will require tighter labeling requirements for all food makers operating in the US market from 1 January 2006.
The legislation will require that food manufacturers identify, "in plain, common language", the presence of any of the eight major food allergens - milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy, and was hailed as a victory by the allergy lobby groups.
"The health and safety of millions of Americans with allergies depends on their ability to understand the information and know there are no 'hidden' or 'undeclared' allergens in the product," said Munoz-Furlong.
As she explained to FoodnavigatorUSA.com, the legislation was drawn up on the back of voluntary guidelines for allergy labeling that had already been agreed with the food industry.
The new US rules also require that the FDA conducts inspections and issues a report within 18 months to ensure that food manufacturers are complying with practices "to reduce or eliminate cross-contact of a food with any major food allergens that are not intentional ingredients of the food".
Munoz-Furlong believes the legislation is a "good first step" - "even a seven year old will be able to understand the labeling".
However, she would now like the issue of "may contain" to be tackled. Through the new labeling the group hopes to minimize the use of "may contain", which, according to Munoz-Furlong, is doing nobody any favors by its ambiguity.
Instead, her organization is advising food companies to use clear, concise statements on their new labels, such as "contains no soy". They are also suggesting that this statement is placed next to the food ingredients panel so that the consumer does not have to search to find the correct information.
Munoz-Furlong has found the larger food companies receptive to changing their labeling and waking up to the needs of food allergy sufferer. "The smaller food companies won't do anything until it has been legislated as they are just looking at the cost of changing their labels," she said.
She also praised the food companies' generally helpful stance when consumers phoned their hotlines to ask about ingredients.
Eight foods account for 90 percent of all allergic reactions in the US, namely milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (walnuts, almonds, pistachios), wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. Symptoms can range from swelling of the lips, or tongue, shortness of breath or a drop in blood pressure and heart failure.
Munoz-Furlong pointed out, though, that despite the attention given to peanut allergies, the most widespread allergy suffered by Americans is that of fish and seafood, in particular salmon and shrimp, which effects around 6.5 million people - mainly adults - in the States. This is twice as many people as who are affected by allergies to peanuts and treenuts.
A food allergy occurs when the immune system mistakenly believes that a harmless substance is harmful. In its attempt to protect the body, the immune system creates IgE antibodies specific to that food. The next time the individual eats that food, the immune system releases massive amounts of chemicals and histamines in order to protect the body, thereby triggering allergic symptoms.
Food companies with questions about the new labeling legislation can contact FAAN .