Food Labels Failing Allergic Consumers, Say Groups
Aug. 15, 2001 (Washington) -- Consumer groups urged the FDA at a meeting this week to enact regulations that would require food manufacturers to list any ingredients known to trigger allergic reactions -- such as peanuts, eggs, and milk -- on product labels, and to do so in simple language easily understandable by consumers.
Representatives from the food industry, however, opposed such requirements, insisting that voluntary guidelines put forward this past spring are adequate to protect consumers.
The FDA sponsored the meeting to examine the issue of whether the seven million Americans with food allergies can understand the wording food manufacturers use on labels.
Eight foods -- peanuts, tree nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds, etc.), fish, shellfish, eggs, milk, soy, and wheat -- account for 90% of allergic reactions caused by food. The reactions in these people can range from tingling in the mouth and swelling of the tongue to death.
Often, labeling will use alternate names for these foods -- such as casein for milk derivative or semolina for wheat. For those with food allergies, misunderstanding these words can be fatal -- 150 deaths occur each year because people with food allergies ate foods they believed did not contain these ingredients.
Labels should list allergens in clear, simple terms, said Anne Munoz-Furlong, president of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, an advocacy group for people with food allergies. She noted that a FAAN survey found that 98% of respondents felt that not enough information about allergens was contained on labeling and 88% said that labeling was difficult to understand.
Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, took it a step farther. The FDA "should require an entirely redesigned ingredients label," because current labels "are designed not to be read," he said.
To this end, he unveiled a design for the new labeling, in which ingredients are listed in clear, large type and there is a section specifically for listing allergens.
But Regina Hildwine of the National Food Processors Association and Lisa Katic, RD, of the Grocery Manufacturers of America argued that these labeling regulations are unnecessary because most food manufacturers are expected to implement voluntary labeling guidelines established by the industry in April.