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Food manufacturers required to list top allergens on labels

December 13, 2006|by LYNN F. LITTLE

If you or someone in your family suffers from a food allergy, you know how difficult it can be to decipher the food label on a product to determine if it contains an offending substance. Now, thanks to a new food labeling law that went into effect in January 2006, food manufacturers must disclose in plain language whether products contain any of the top eight food allergens.

More than 160 foods have been identified as sources of allergic reactions, but 90 percent of allergic reactions associated with foods are caused by one of eight foods: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soy.

Manufacturers have two options for declaring the presence of these foods. One is to add a "contains" statement next to the ingredient list that identifies the types of allergenic foods contained in the product; for example, "contains milk and wheat." The other option is to place the food source in parentheses next to ingredients derived from one of the eight potential offending foods classes, such as sodium caseinate (milk) and albumin (egg).

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The name of the allergen only needs to appear once in the ingredient statement. For example, if a product contains both milk and a milk-derived ingredient, such as whey, the manufacturer is not required to define whey as also being a milk product. In the case of nuts and seafood, the law requires that the specific type of nut or species of fish or shellfish be specified. Also, the presence of such ingredients must be listed even if they are contained only in colorings, flavoring agents or spice blends used in the product.

When the law went into effect in January, it applied only to those foods labeled on or after Jan. 1, 2006. Depending on a product's shelf life, it might take up to a year before all products on your grocer's shelf will list allergenic ingredients in plain language. Until then, you will need to look for technical terms like "casein" for milk and "albumin" for egg.

The new labeling law applies to all foods regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, except raw agricultural commodities, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, and highly refined oils that have been bleached and deodorized. What this means is that you might not be able to tell from the label that "vegetable oil" really means "soybean oil." The protein level is so low in highly refined oils that the FDA does not have good evidence for including them in the list of ingredients that need allergen labeling.

The law applies to any domestic or imported packaged foods sold in retail and food-service establishments but not to products or meals ordered in restaurants or delis. It's up to the consumer to ask questions about ingredients and preparation methods when eating at restaurants, delis or any place outside your home.

The law does not specifically address gluten, only wheat. Gluten describes a group of proteins found in certain grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It is of concern because people with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten. An estimated one in every 133 people in the U.S. has celiac disease, and there is some concern that the numbers are rising. The law required the FDA to issue a proposed rule that would allow voluntary use of the term "gluten free" by August 2006 and to have a final rule on "gluten free" in place by August 2008.

If you have a food allergy, follow these steps to avoid an allergic reaction:

· Practice prevention. Know what you are eating and drinking.

· Know about hidden food allergens. Some food allergens might be well-hidden when used as ingredients in certain dishes, especially in restaurants and social settings.

· Be proactive when dining out. In addition to avoiding food choices based on a restaurant's menu description, ask specific questions about ingredients and how each dish is prepared.

· Read and re-read. Even though a food product might have been safe the last time you purchased or consumed it, it is possible that the ingredients have changed or the label has been updated. It is important to always read food labels.

· Identify your allergy. Wear a medical-alert bracelet that describes your allergy, and carry an alert card in your wallet or purse.

· Prepare to counteract a reaction. Talk with your doctor about carrying emergency medications in case of an allergic reaction.

For more information on food allergens, go to:

www.cfsan.fda.gov and click on food allergens.

www.fsis.usda.gov and search for food allergens.

www3.niaid.nih.gov and click on health and science topics.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences educator with Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

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