March 22, 2005
New Food Label Law Eagerly Awaited
But those with food allergies may find even more dietary restrictions with 'plain language' labels
HealthDay News -- New "plain language" food labeling requirements in the United States, which take effect less than a year from now, will reduce allergic reactions in people who have potentially life-threatening food allergies. But there may be another, unintentional result for those who suffer from food allergies.
If food manufacturers follow the labeling law to the letter, trace amounts of some heretofore unlisted food allergens will be posted, causing more diet restriction than ever before.
The impending label changes will also probably reduce consumers' need to contact food manufacturers and generally make life simpler for the 11 million Americans who suffer from food allergies.
"The labeling law will give us more information, so even a 7-year-old can read labels," said Anne Munoz-Furlong, co-author of a study being presented Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in San Antonio.
The study was funded by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), the organization that Munoz-Furlong founded.
The new law will require manufacturers to use plain, common language on the presence of any of the eight major food allergens (milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy). Companies will also be required to indicate any major food allergens used in spices, flavorings, additives and colorings, categories which had previously been exempt.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act ( FALCPA), passed by Congress, will take effect in January 2006. The regulation is intended to make life easier and simpler for people who suffer food allergies, some of which can be fatal. For these individuals, accurately reading a label can be a matter of life and death.
One peanut-allergic boy ended up in the emergency room simply because he came into contact with peanut shells from a man sitting next to him at Yankee Stadium in New York City. Another man had to have a tracheotomy after unwittingly eating peanut-butter-laced chili in a Brooklyn restaurant.
"You can be allergic to any food with a protein," said Dr. Clifford Basset, clinical assistant professor of medicine at the State University of New York. "99.9 percent of the time you can't fix it. You have to avoid the food. You need to be label detectives."
Currently, consumers are often confused by complicated language masking simple ideas, for example "casein" instead of "milk."
The study authors surveyed 489 individuals who had participated in conferences sponsored by the FAAN about their experiences with food labels.
Almost all (99 percent) of respondents said that they "always/frequently" read food labels before purchasing. The majority (86 percent) said their brand choice was "very much influenced" by the labeling. The same percentage said they had contacted manufacturers for more information about ingredients.
Of those surveyed, 16 percent reported having an allergic reaction because they misunderstood label terms, while 22 percent said they had had a reaction because allergens were not included on the label.
One likely downside to the new law will be further narrowing of already restricted diets for some people. Most studies have indicate that people with soy allergies run little risk by ingesting soy oil or soy lecithin, but 40 percent of those surveyed avoid these ingredients anyway.
"If the company follows the law exactly, we may have ingredients in trace amounts that may unnecessarily limit the diet," Munoz-Furlong said. "We need more studies on the threshold levels as science has not caught up with labeling at this point."
"But this is one minor problem compared to a huge benefit," she added.
Also, the law won't change the situation in restaurants. One-third of survey respondents said they had had a reaction to food served in or provided by a restaurant. Of those, almost two-thirds (63 percent) had had a reaction to restaurant food on more than one occasion.
A compound to increase an allergic person's tolerance to peanuts showed success in clinical trials but has stalled in getting to market. In the meantime, Munoz-Furlong said, studies are underway with Xolair, an asthma treatment, to see if it would protect peanut-allergic people enough so they won't react to trace amounts of the food.
For more on food allergies, visit FAAN.