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Rise in food allergies raises labeling concerns

By Sarah Hills , 23-Oct-2008

Worrying new statistics show that the number of young people with a food or digestive allergy has increased 18 percent in a decade, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Approximately three million, or four percent of all US children and teenagers under 18 in 2007 were reported to have a food or digestive allergy within 12 months, compared to just over 2.3m (3.3 percent) in 1997.

The issues is of concern for the food industry as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said recently that advisory labeling of allergens in food “may not be protecting the health of allergic consumers”.

The FDA is currently developing a long-term strategy to assist manufacturers in using allergen advisory labeling that is “truthful and not misleading, conveys a clear and uniform message, and adequately informs food-allergic consumers and their caregivers”.

The CDCP report, published in a data brief, called “Food Allergy Among US Children: Trends in Prevalence and Hospitalizations”, found that eight types of food account for 90 percent of all food allergies: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat.

Reactions to these foods by an allergic person can range from a tingling sensation around the mouth and lips, to hives and sometimes death, depending on the severity of the reaction.

The figures were taken from the National Health Interview Survey and the National Hospital Discharge Survey, both conducted by CDC′s National Center for Health Statistics.

They showed that children with a food allergy are two to four times as likely to experience other allergic conditions and asthma, than children with no food allergy.

It said: “This is of great importance as children with coexisting food allergy and asthma may be more likely to experience anaphylactic reactions to foods and be at higher risk of death.”

Boys and girls had similar rates of food allergy: 3.8 percent for boys and 4.1 percent for girls. Approximately 4.7 percent of children younger than 5 years had a reported food allergy compared to 3.7 percent of children and teens aged 5 to 17 years.

Why people develop an allergy to specific foods is largely unknown although they are more prevalent in children than adults. Most affected children will outgrow food allergies, although it can be a lifelong concern.

Clearer labeling

This summer the FDA has called on the food industry and other interested parties to contribute to a public hearing on the use of advisory labeling of allergens in food.

The FDA said that the use of advisory label statements is not uniform in the US, particularly when it comes to the risk of cross-contamination during food production.

Efforts are being made within the food industry

More than 170 foods have been identified as allergens, including fruits, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, poppy seeds, mollusks, peas, lentils, and beans other than green beans.

Studies have been carried out which focus on developments in science that could lead to treating, curing, or even preventing food allergies.

In one, children allergic to peanuts were given tiny amounts of peanut flour to see if they can build up tolerance.

Another study by scientists at King's College London has found that children are more likely to develop peanut allergies in countries where the avoidance of peanuts is recommended in early childhood - like the United States.

But the FDA said the only successful method to manage food allergies is avoidance of food containing allergens, particularly by reading ingredient labels to see whether a food product contains an allergenic ingredient.

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