Food allergen labeling is a hot topic. While it has always been important to the six to seven million Americans suffering from food allergies, labeling of food allergens became more realistic to food manufacturers after the Food and Drug Administration released the "Food Allergen Partnership" study in March.

The study's major finding, that 25% of sampled food products tested positive for peanut allergens--even though peanuts were not declared on the label--was widely reported. Groups are calling on the FDA to change requirements of food allergen labeling, making food labels clearer and easier for consumers to understand. The labeling of all food allergens also is being requested, including those that currently have incidental ingredient and collective naming exemptions in the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (the Act).

Industry Efforts

In May, the Food Allergy Issues Alliance, primarily a group of food industry organizations, including the National Food Processors Association and the Grocery Manufacturers of America, announced the publication of Food Allergen Labeling Guidelines. "These guidelines are intended to help food processors diligently inform food-allergic consumers about the presence of major food allergens in products in clear and simple language," stated the Alliance. "Making major food allergens easy to identify on food labels should help food-allergic consumers make informed decisions on whether a food is appropriate for consumption."

The Food Allergen Labeling Guidelines:

  • Identify the eight major food allergens (crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, soy, tree nuts, wheat);
  • Advocate using easy-to-understand terms for allergens and placing that information within, or in immediate proximity to, the ingredient panel;
  • Call for manufacturers to disclose the presence of major food allergens when they are intentionally part of the food, regardless of the fact that they may now be exempted from declaration; and
  • Establish guidelines for conditions when the use of supplemental allergen statements ("may contain" labeling) is appropriate.

  • Consumer Efforts

    The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) participated in the Food Allergy Issues Alliance and helped develop the Food Allergen Labeling Guidelines. Anne Munoz-Forlong, founder and CEO of FAAN, stated that the guidelines "will make a tremendous difference to . . . children and adults who have food allergies. Listing ingredients in terms that are familiar to us will allow parents to teach their seven-year-olds how to read a label and avoid the food to which they are allergic."

    Not all groups are praising the guidelines. The Center for the Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is calling for federal legislation to ensure that all food manufacturers comply with labeling and other measures to protect consumers from allergens in food. Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI's executive director, says that the food industry's "voluntary labeling is a tactic for preventing necessary legislation."

    Legislative Efforts

    Representative Nita Lowey (D-18th N.Y.) agrees and has introduced HR 1356, the Food Ingredient Right to Know Act. This bill would amend the Act to require that foods containing spices, flavorings or coloring derived from meat, poultry, other animal products (including insects)--or known allergens--bear labeling statements. Lowey also plans to introduce the Food Allergen Consumer Protection Act, which would require common language labeling of food allergens.

    It would also allow FDA to assess civil penalties against processors and plants in violation of the Act and would require the Centers for Disease Control to establish a system for tracking food-allergy related deaths.

    Government Efforts

    Allergens are on the "A" priority list at FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). A major goal at CFSAN is to provide guidance to the industry and regulators on how to manage allergens through appropriate manufacturing and labeling practices. FDA took one step toward this goal by announcing the availability of the Compliance Policy Guide on Allergens in early May. FDA will also hold a workshop on August 13 with industry, consumers, trade associations and consumer advocate groups to discuss current allergen labeling exemptions and other issues.

    Regardless of who is calling for new food labeling, food manufacturers can expect some changes in requirements. Whether the changes are voluntary or mandatory, common language identification of food allergens and identification of allergens in spices and flavorings are likely to be part of the food label in the near future.