Sci­ence panel urges re­write of food al­lergy warn­ing la­bels

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - WEATHER - By Lauran Neergaard

“Our mem­bers are com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that food al­ler­gic con­sumers have the in­for­ma­tion they need on the food la­bel to make in­formed choices about the safety of the prod­ucts they pur­chase.” — The Gro­cery Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion

WASHINGTON >> “Made in the same fac­tory as peanuts.” “May con­tain traces of tree nuts.” A new re­port says the hodge­podge of warn­ings that a food might ac­ci­den­tally con­tain a trou­ble­some in­gre­di­ent is con­fus­ing to peo­ple with food al­ler­gies, and calls for a makeover.

Foods made with al­lergy-prone in­gre­di­ents such as peanuts or eggs must be la­beled so con­sumers with food al­ler­gies know to avoid them. But what if a su­gar cookie picks up peanut but­ter from an im­prop­erly cleaned fac­tory mixer?

To­day’s pre­cau­tion­ary la­bels about ac­ci­den­tal con­tam­i­na­tion are vol­un­tary, mean­ing there’s no way to know if foods that don’t bear them should — or if word­ing such as “may con­tain traces” sig­nals a big­ger threat than other warn­ings.

Wednesday, a re­port from the pres­ti­gious National Acad­e­mies of Sciences, En­gi­neer­ing and Medicine said it’s time for reg­u­la­tors and the food in­dus­try to clear con­sumer con­fu­sion with la­bels that bet­ter re­flect the level of risk.

To­day, “there’s not any real way for al­ler­gic con­sumers to eval­u­ate risk,” said National Acad­e­mies com­mit­tee mem­ber Stephen Tay­lor, a Univer­sity of Ne­braska food sci­en­tist. He said re­search raises con­cern that con­sumers might sim­ply ig­nore the pre­cau­tions, “es­sen­tially a form of play­ing Rus­sian roulette with your food.”

Food al­ler­gies are com­mon and some­times can trig­ger re­ac­tions se­vere enough to kill. About 12 mil­lion Amer­i­cans have long been es­ti­mated to have food al­ler­gies, and sci­en­tists ques­tion if they’re on the rise.

But Wednesday’s National Acad­e­mies re­port found that while food al­ler­gies are a se­ri­ous pub­lic health prob­lem, no one knows ex­actly how many peo­ple are af­fected — be­cause that hasn’t been prop­erly stud­ied, in ei­ther chil­dren or adults. The re­port urged gov­ern­ment re­searchers to rapidly find out, a key first step in learn­ing whether al­ler­gies re­ally are in­creas­ing and who’s most likely to suf­fer.

The panel also rec­om­mended:

• Bet­ter in­form­ing new par­ents about al­lergy pre­ven­tion. Re­cent re­search has found that in­tro­duc­ing po­ten­tial al­lergy-trig­ger­ing foods such as peanut but­ter be­fore age 1 is more likely to pro­tect at-risk chil­dren than the old ad­vice to wait to try those foods un­til tots are older.

• Bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion for con­sumers and health pro­fes­sion­als alike about the dif­fer­ences be­tween true food al­ler­gies and other dis­or­ders that peo­ple some­times mis­in­ter­pret as al­ler­gies, such as lac­tose in­tol­er­ance and gluten sen­si­tiv­ity.

• Bet­ter train­ing for restau­rant work­ers, first re­spon­ders and oth­ers about help­ing peo­ple avoid foods they’re al­ler­gic to, and how to treat se­vere al­ler­gic re­ac­tions with a quick jab of the drug ep­i­neph­rine, often sold as an EpiPen.

The Asthma and Al­lergy Foun­da­tion of Amer­ica wel­comed the rec­om­men­da­tions as a “roadmap” of ways to im­prove the lives of fam­i­lies with food al­ler­gies.

The la­bel­ing rec­om­men­da­tion, if even­tu­ally adopted, could mark a big change in how al­ler­gic con­sumers de­cide what pack­aged foods are safe to eat.

The re­port said the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion should re­place the “pre­cau­tion­ary” la­bel ap­proach with one that’s riskbased. The idea: De­ter­mine a safety level for dif­fer­ent al­ler­gens — just how much of a “trace” of peanuts or eggs or milk could most peo­ple with al­ler­gies tol­er­ate? The re­sult­ing la­bel­ing would give con­sumers more in­for­ma­tion in de­cid­ing if they’d take a chance on a food or not, said Tay­lor, who pointed to a sim­i­lar vol­un­tary sys­tem in Aus­tralia and New Zealand.

A food in­dus­try group in­di­cated sup­port.

“Our mem­bers are com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that food al­ler­gic con­sumers have the in­for­ma­tion they need on the food la­bel to make in­formed choices about the safety of the prod­ucts they pur­chase. We sup­port the rec­om­men­da­tions of the National Acad­e­mies to es­tab­lish thresh­old lim­its for prod­ucts that use a ‘may con­tain’ al­ler­gen pre­cau­tion­ary state­ment,” the Gro­cery Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion said in a state­ment.

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