Bill Will Force Food Labels to List Allergens

House passes bill mandating plain English

WEDNESDAY, July 21, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Food manufacturers will soon be required to radically change their labeling practices and list ingredients -- and, especially, what allergies they can trigger -- in plain English.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed by voice vote the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, a bill the Senate previously approved. If the bill clears a conference committee, President Bush is expected to sign it.

"We're ecstatic. This is an outgrowth of work we've been doing for 13 years with the food industry and six years with Congress," said Anne Munoz-Furlong, CEO and founder of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). "We believe this will make a tremendous difference to Americans with food allergens."

Private industry, along with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, also praised the bill.

"We think that this is a good thing for consumers," said Tim Willard, spokesman for the National Food Processors Association in Washington, D.C. "It will help food allergic consumers or those who buy foods for people with allergies to get more clear and consumer-friendly information on the contents of food."

What's on a food label -- or what's perceived to be on a food label -- can influence life-and-death decisions.

Often, however, the information is just too complicated and scientific for the average person, particularly the average child, to comprehend. For example, the terms "whey," "casein," and "lactoglobulin" all indicate that a product contains milk. The simple word "milk," however, is not usually found on a label.

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act was first introduced four years ago by U.S. Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.). It passed the Senate on March 8, 2004.

The act mandates not just labeling, but various other factors as well. Specifically, it requires:

  • That food labels list in everyday language any of the eight main food allergens (milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy, and wheat) that are in the product. These allergens account for 90 percent of food allergies.
  • That the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention track food allergy-related deaths.
  • That the FDA undertake an examination of how to eliminate unintentional contamination and cross-contact of foods.
  • And that guidelines be established for the use of the term "gluten-free," to help people suffering from gluten intolerance or celiac disease.

Labels will have to be updated by January 2006, although some food manufacturers have already started complying. "We are already seeing some of the marketplace changing to reflect these changes," Munoz-Furlong said.

"You'll be seeing a lot more of these labels," Willard added. "Frankly, it's a little bit of a competitive thing."

Willard added that only allergen-related ingredients would be changed and that nothing on the label outside of ingredients would be altered.

Products that once said "casein" will now have "milk" added in parentheses or at the end of the list. Similarly, it will not longer be enough to say "ground nuts" or "tree nuts." The specific nut will have to be named.

"Consumers are quickly going to be able scan the ingredients and look for a single word they're accustomed to seeing -- milk or eggs or soy," Munoz-Furlong said. "This will make a big difference across the board regardless of which allergen you're allergic to. We are confident that it will make life easier not just for parents but children themselves."

She added, "A 7-year-old will be able to read the label and confirm what is in the product. The babysitter, the coach, the teacher -- there are many people reading ingredient labels on behalf of those with food allergies."

According to FAAN, about 11 million Americans suffer from food allergies. There are no cures for these allergies, meaning that avoidance is the only strategy. It's estimated that up to 250 deaths each year result from allergic reactions, with another 30,000 requiring lifesaving emergency treatments.

More information

For more on common food allergies, visit the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

SOURCES: Anne Munoz-Furlong, CEO and founder, Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, Fairfax, Va.; Tim Willard, spokesman, National Food Processors Association, Washington, D.C.; U.S. House of Representatives Web site; statement, U.S. Rep. Nina Lowey (D-N.Y.)
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