Taking Control of Allergens through Regulation

Food allergy occurs when an individual possesses intolerance to certain types of materials in food, which provokes a hypersensitive reaction of the immune system. It is a major concern to the many people allergic to eggs, peanuts, dairy products, soy, tree nuts (e.g. almonds and cashews), fish, shellfish and wheat, which are commonly referred to by the industry as the Big 8.

Responsible for over 90 percent of all food allergy reactions, the Big 8 can produce a range of reactions from extremely mild – to in the worst-cases of sensitivity – death. Food allergies have accounted for 150 to 200 deaths and an estimated 30,000 visits to the emergency room in the United States each year,1 and they are one of the top 10 leading causes of chronic diseases in the United States, costing the healthcare system nearly $18 billion a year.2 Studies in the European Union and the U.S. have found that many people, even parents of children who have allergies, are unable to discern from food packaging whether a food contains allergens or not. In response, both the EU and U.S. governments created more stringent regulations on the proper labeling of allergens on food packaging. Hong Kong has also slated new, tougher regulations for 2007, which means the food industry will soon need to adhere to a more transparent and effective detection system for food allergens. In order to comply with the new requirements, it will be essential to implement stronger food allergen management systems, which will necessarily include faster, more sensitive, and more reliable testing methods.

How Well Do You Know About Food Allergy?

Food allergies are caused by the overreaction of the immune system (antibodies immunoglobulin E [IgE] and immuno- globulin G [IgG]) towards certain types of food. Symptoms of an allergic reaction can include vomiting, stomach ache, rash, mouth and throat irritation, difficulty in breathing and even death.

According to the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients’ Associations, nearly 12 million Americans suffer from food allergies, with 6.5 million allergic to seafood and three million allergic to peanut or tree nuts.3 In the EU, approximately 4 percent of adults and 8 percent of children out of a total population of 380 million suffer from food allergies. In the new U.S. regulations, it is noted that in a limited review in 1999, some 25 percent of sampled foods from randomly selected manufacturers of baked goods, ice cream and candy failed to list peanuts or eggs on their food labels. It also noted the trend of a rising number of national recalls due to unlabeled allergens. Thus, there is clearly a large need for stronger controls on food safety.

When New Regulations Come In

Both the EU and the U.S. have passed new regulations to govern the labeling of food allergens. The U.S. passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act in 2004, which requires that any of the Big 8 be listed on food labels using common language. The EU’s amendments to the food directive added four more allergens to the same big eight that are required in the U.S. for labeling; those being celery, mustard, sesame seeds, and sulphur dioxide and sulphites at concentrations of more than 10 mg/kg or 10 mg/liter.

This is a change from the previous regulations in several important aspects. First, the previous ones did not specify that common language to identify ingredients should be used instead of lesser-known scientific terms. For example, now a label must state any use of milk, rather than the more nebulous terms of casein, sodium caseinate, lactoglobulin or lactalbumin that could be used alone before. Second, it eliminates the previous gap that allowed manufacturers to not list ingredients that, as part of a compound, made up less than 25 percent of a product. FALCPA now requires that food labels indicate the presence of potential allergens used in spices, flavorings, additives and colorings, which were previously exempt from allergen labeling and put people at risk for hidden ingredients.

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