Allergens: A Potential Kiss of Death

She was just 15 and in love, and in a romantic interlude with her beau in early March, she stole what would be her last kiss. While a coroner said it was a lack of oxygen to her brain, it was initially believed that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich lingering on the pallet of her boyfriend was the culprit, for Christina Desforges, of Saguenay, Quebec, Canada, who was, incidentally, allergic to peanuts, and died in a Quebec hospital several days later.

At press time, however, Coroner Michel Miron refused to disclose the cause of death, saying he has yet to submit his final report to the provincial coroner’s office. But he told The Associated Press he hoped to end the “phobia” provoked by the case, which drew global media coverage.

Miron’s characterization seems to minimize the worldwide attention that food allergies get, and perhaps he is undermining the great efforts that are being carried out globally and locally to combat the threats allergens pose, for neither the concern nor the coverage has waned. In fact, it continues to intensify, as food allergies and allergen testing can present quite the quandaries for not just consumers, but for the food industry, too.

Label Laws

As of Jan. 1, FDA now requires food labels to clearly state if food products contain any ingredients that contain protein derived from the eight major allergenic foods, which are milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

The new law is a provision of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), which mandates that manufacturers are now required to identify in plain English the presence of ingredients that contain protein derived from in the list of allergenic foods or to say “contains” followed by name of the source of the food allergen after or adjacent to the list of ingredients.

According to the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), this labeling law will be especially helpful to children who must learn to recognize the presence of substances they must avoid. For example, if a product contains the milk-derived protein, “casein,” the product’s label will have to use the term “milk” in addition to the term “casein” so that consumers with milk allergies can clearly understand the presence of an allergen they need to avoid.

The FDA estimates that 2 percent of adults and about 5 percent of infants and young children in the United States suffer from food allergies. Approximately 30,000 consumers require emergency room treatment and 150 Americans die each year because of allergic reactions to food.

“The eight major food allergens account for 90 percent of all documented food allergic reactions, and some reactions may be severe or life-threatening,” Robert E. Brackett, Ph.D., CFSAN’s director, says in a statement. “Consumers will benefit from improved food labels for products that contain food allergens.”

The new law, however, does not require food manufacturers or retailers to re-label or remove products from grocery or supermarket shelves that do not reflect the additional allergen labeling as long as the products were labeled before the effective date.

FDA has cautioned consumers that there will be a transition period of “undetermined length” during which it is likely that consumers will see packaged food on store shelves and in consumers’ homes without the revised allergen labeling.

“We are in a transition period,” an FDA official, who refused to give her name, told Food Quality.

When it comes to allergens, there are two areas of interest, the FDA official explains. One is how is the food labeled and does the verbiage comply with the law and the other, where allergens play out in food production.

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