The Food Allergy and Research Organization estimates that 15 million Americans have food allergies, which includes over 5 million children that are under the age of 18—that’s roughly 1 in every 13 children. The frequency of severe allergic reactions to food has increased exponentially, rising to over 300 percent from 2007 to 2016, according to a recent study of healthcare-related private insurance claims conducted by FAIR Health.
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FAIR Health is a nonprofit group that collects, analyzes, and interprets the nation’s largest collection of healthcare claims data. It’s interesting to note that anaphylactic reactions due to “other specific food” accounted for 33 percent of the anaphylactic food reaction claims between 2007 and 2016. This further validates that it is possible for an individual to have multiple food allergies. Peanuts accounted for 26 percent of the total chart and further analysis of the data shows that this number is steadily growing.
In 2004, the FDA established the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, requiring that food and beverage products are labeled to identify the eight major allergens, popularly known as “The Big 8.” These include peanuts, milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, and soybean. Despite regulatory measures such as this and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), recalls are on the rise due to undeclared allergens. Here are three factors contributing to the problem.
1. Inconsistent regulatory requirements across supply chain. There is a growing need for more homogenous rules and regulations across supply chain systems. Food ingredients are shipped across the globe and with more international ingredients integrating with the national food supply and distribution systems—it is imperative that manufacturers are aware of not only where their ingredients are coming from, but also whether there was a sub-processing step involved alongside other food ingredients. Food labeling remains an area of opportunity for further improvements as certain ethnic retail stores in the U.S. continue to sell food products with labels not fully translated to English.
2. FSMA requires time to be fully implemented. We are still in the implementation phases of FSMA. The primary focus thus far has been the bigger labels, i.e., for food manufacturers, distributors, and retailers as it is much easier for them to roll out standardized systems, enable documentation protocols, and develop contingency plans. Smaller food businesses have only just joined the bandwagon. The risk is this includes certain pockets of the food industry handling ready-to-eat foods. With little or no ability to effectively detect primary hazards like allergens at the domestic kitchen level, contaminants are set to travel through the supply chain with no possible traceability systems established. This leaves the public exposed to risks and it makes it even more challenging to fully investigate the root cause of the problem.
3. Growing need for awareness. There is also growing need for awareness through not only better food safety training, but also general communication systems. The gap can be reduced, if not closed, by increasing public awareness and providing more clarity in terms of regulatory initiatives and food labeling measures.