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Can That Label

Survey shows food allergens often not listed in packaged products

FRIDAY, Sept. 28, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Food allergies can be life threatening, and new research shows people can't always trust the label when they pluck packaged products from store shelves.

After analyzing 221 phone calls to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) over 24 months, researchers at the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute in New York City found 68 percent of the callers had come across inadequate labels on food products. Since more than 6 million Americans have potentially fatal food allergies, the results were particularly troubling, the researchers say.

"It shows what we're picking up in these phone calls. There must be countless others who didn't call. It certainly looks like it is a big problem, and it needs to be addressed," says Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and chief executive officer of FAAN.

Of the people who called about labeling problems, 28 percent found cross-contamination by an unlabeled allergen, 26 percent found a visible ingredient that was not listed on the label, and 7 percent found completely wrong ingredients in the package. The rest complained of ambiguous wording on the label.

Munoz-Furlong says completely wrong labeling is the biggest concern, followed by cross-contamination by an unlabeled allergen. With the latter, people found a food allergen in a product that wasn't supposed to contain that allergen. The reason: Machinery is often shared in making different food products. Peanuts are an example of this problem, she says.

"If the process doesn't involve the cleaning of equipment between batches, you can't avoid traces of a food allergen. The consumer has no way to know that this could be an issue for them," Munoz-Furlong says.

One allergy expert says things need to change.

"I think this has been an issue for years now. There definitely can be improvement in the way things are labeled. There are ways of doing it so that you're informing the public better," says Dr. Sheldon Spector, former president of the Los Angeles Society of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

For instance, he says milk products often are listed as casein and wheat products often show up as gluten, so some people may not recognize the danger.

"There's lots of things that people need to be aware of. I definitely think there's a problem," Spector says.

Munoz-Furlong says, "It does you no good to put information on a label if the consumer doesn't understand the language you use."

The FAAN study, which appears in the September issue of the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, is not the first time the problem has surfaced.

Last year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspected 85 ice cream, bakery and candy makers in Minnesota and Wisconsin and found up to 25 percent didn't list ingredients that could cause fatal allergic reactions. Although any food can trigger an allergy, 90 percent of the life-threatening reactions are caused by eight foods: peanuts, eggs, milk, wheat, tree nuts, soy, fish and shellfish.

The FDA report showed that 25 percent of the companies' products tested positive for peanuts, though the ingredient was not listed on the label. Only about half of the companies checked their products to make sure the labels were accurate, the report said.

Last August, the FDA held public hearings on the food labeling issue and soon will decide what action, if any, it plans to take on the matter.

On a bright note, Munoz-Furlong says larger food companies are taking steps to make sure allergens don't slip into the wrong products, often by cleaning the equipment thoroughly or switching the production schedule so the food without the allergen is made first.

"This needs to be spread throughout the industry. This can be done," she says. "Companies need to go back and look at this. They need to understand why this is such a big issue. It really comes down to taking responsibility. It's a huge responsibility producing food and selling it to consumers."

FAAN statistics show that more than 30,000 people end up in emergency rooms because of food allergies each year, and as many as 200 of them die.

What To Do

You can go to the grocery store without breaking into a cold sweat.

Munoz-Furlong says, "There is a way to manage your allergy. You just need to be wise about how you select products."

If you have a food allergy, be careful when you buy packaged food, she says. Read labels carefully, buy well-known brands from large companies where manufacturing practices have been improved, and avoid imported products.

For more information on food allergies and labeling, see the FDA or the FAAN.

SOURCES: Interviews with Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and CEO, FAAN; Sheldon Spector, M.D., allergist, private practice, former president of the Los Angeles Society of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology; September 2001 Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology
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