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food allergen labeling laws

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Sesame: More Than Just a Street

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Sesame allergy has been all over the news lately. Last year, a teenage girl tragically died at Heathrow Airport after eating a Pret a Manger baguette containing sesame—the ingredient was not listed on the packaging. This incident drew attention not only to the severity of sesame allergies, but also to deficiencies in food allergy labeling. 

A growing body of research indicates that sesame allergy is on the rise. A recent study published in Pediatrics estimates that 0.2% of the U.S. population has a sesame allergy, making it the ninth most common food allergy. 

The spike in sesame allergy has triggered a closer look at the way sesame is labeled on food packaging. This past October, the FDA released a statement indicating that it was considering sesame for mandatory allergen labeling on food packaging pursuant to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). Enacted January 1, 2006, FALCPA imposes special labeling requirements for the top eight most common food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, eggs, milk, and soy. As you can see, the list does not currently include sesame. That could soon change. Notably, Canada, the European Union, Australia, and Israel currently require allergen labeling for sesame. 

For those out there managing a sesame allergy, know that you are amazing. Sesame is insidious, and because it does not fall within FALCPA labeling laws, it is infinitely harder to manage. 

If you’ve followed us for a while, you know that I have a daughter with serious food allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. She was diagnosed with these food allergies at one and is now six (and crushing Kindergarten!). What I haven’t mentioned is that from ages two through three we avoided sesame like the plague because of an anaphylactic reaction she’d had to hummus just before her second birthday.

She’d eaten hummus multiple times previously, but one day, while eating hummus at lunch, her lips began turning blue and she started coughing. One epinephrine auto-injector, several hours at our children’s hospital, and some IgE blood testing later, she was home safely with a new food allergy added to the list: sesame. 

Sesame often hides under the guise of “natural flavors” or “spices” on food labels. I used to keep a spreadsheet of every manufacturer I called knowing the ingredient could be lurking behind these vague categories. To make matters worse, some manufacturers won’t share this information, citing trade secret protection. I quickly learned that I had more success if I asked if sesame was included as an ingredient in any of these proprietary categories, as opposed to asking for the whole ingredient list. Sesame also lurks under different names like tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds. If you’re managing a sesame allergy, here’s a great list of food and non-food items that may contain sesame or any of its derivatives. 

It’s been over four years since my daughter’s anaphylactic reaction, and I can joyfully say that she’s outgrown her sesame allergy. But it was no walk in the park to manage, and I still vividly remember my sesame spreadsheet and the tears of frustration that went along with tracking all of the different food ingredients. 

For those managing a sesame allergy, the struggle is real, and FALCPA labeling for sesame would make things a LOT easier! Interestingly, the Pediatrics study we referenced earlier cited that the highest rates of epinephrine auto-injector prescriptions were found for children with peanut, tree nut, and SESAME allergies.

We’ll be following the regulatory deliberations closely, and will be sure to keep you all updated on social media as the discussion unfolds. Do you or does your child have a sesame allergy? What’s your experience been like?

 - Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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Killer Beauty Regimens

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When we think about managing food allergies, we don’t tend to consider lipstick or lotion. But we should.

Walking down the aisle of my local co-op recently, I grabbed a tub of moisturizer labeled “tester” and applied a dab to my hand. I tried placing the scent, and when I couldn’t, turned the jar around and saw almond oil listed as the first ingredient. My stomach clenched, and a variant of “shoot” slipped from my mouth. I’m deathly allergic to tree nuts. I washed my hands immediately, and fortunately, I was fine. Historically, my worst skin exposure outcome is hives. However, given the unpredictability of allergic reactions, it’s still hard not to panic. 

You’d think after all these years and several close calls I’d be more careful; but when it comes to skincare and beauty products, I routinely let down my guard. I shouldn’t.

Did I sufficiently give you a fright? 

Good. Sometimes a little fear is a good thing. Especially when you’re talking about something as serious as an allergic reaction! 

For the food allergic, even moderate skin exposure can be serious. Creams, soaps, oils, make-up, lipstick, and balms can also lead to small amounts of ingestion, so it’s important for those with food allergies and their loved ones to vet these items with the same diligence they do foods. Don’t forget vitamins, teas, and herbal supplements, too! 

Beware the two S’s: spas and salons. 

Planning a massage, manicure, or haircut? Make sure you tell your massage therapist or stylist to avoid products containing your allergen. This is especially true if you’re allergic to nuts—you’d be surprised how many spas and salons use nut oils. Just last month while getting my haircut I was surrounded by advertisements for the salon’s newest cherry almond shampoos and conditioners. Suffice it to say, I steered clear of this product line. 😉 

FDA labeling laws and cosmetics.

Skincare and beauty products are not regulated in the same way that foods are for allergens—even if they contain a common allergenic ingredient! 

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), which we explore in an earlier blog, applies to FDA-regulated food products, not cosmetics and beauty products. Accordingly, these products do not need to adhere to FALCPA labeling requirements, although many brands list these ingredients anyway. Regardless, it’s worth taking note.

We hope this information hasn’t spooked you, although it is Halloween season! Rather, we hope this knowledge helps you stay informed and safe when managing your food allergies. So before you slather on some blood-red lipstick this All Hallow’s Eve, check that label!

Wishing you all a BOO-tiful Halloween! 👻🎃

- Abi and the Allergy Amulet Team 

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A Look Behind the Label: How Food Manufacturers Prevent Allergen Cross-Contact

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In an earlier post, we explored food allergy labeling laws and why many food products include “may contain” statements. To better understand the extent to which these foods may in fact contain allergens, we’re going closer to the source: food manufacturers.

On nearly all matters concerning food safety, including allergen control, FDA-regulated food manufacturers follow the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).

Signed into law in 2011, FSMA introduced significant reforms to the nation’s food safety laws. For the first time, food manufacturers were required to develop and maintain a written “food safety plan.” FSMA also gave the FDA discretionary authority to approve or reject these food safety plans, giving auditors considerable interpretive power over which food safety plans would pass muster.

In 2015, the FDA published a final rule on Preventive Controls for Human Foods. This regulation is one of the key parts of FSMA and mandates that companies perform a Hazard Analysis and develop Risk-Based Preventive Controls (often referred to as “HARPC”).  The regulation requires manufacturers to identify and implement controls for any “reasonably foreseeable” food safety hazard–which includes the top eight most common allergens (tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, finfish, soy, milk, egg, and wheat). Accordingly, if any of these allergens could end up in the final food product, manufacturers must implement preventive controls, defined as “written procedures the facility must have and implement to control allergen cross-contact.” Notably, allergen testing is currently discretionary, not required.

So how tough are these food safety plans on food allergens?

According to food safety expert Dr. Scott Brooks, pretty tough. “While FSMA is not prescriptive, food safety plans must stand up to scrutiny from FDA inspectors. The FDA has published industry guidance to help ensure FSMA compliance, and those in the industry know that it’s important to follow the FDA’s guidance documents.” While not finalized, the FDA draft guidance document on HARPC advises implementing controls to prevent cross-contact, and other measures including product sequencing and sanitation controls.

Most larger companies invest considerable resources into food allergen management, according to food safety expert Dr. Bert Popping. Indeed, “large manufacturers often test foods for trace allergens and have allergen management controls in place.” Dr. Popping notes however that “a number of typically small and medium-sized companies have no allergen management in place, and accordingly will often issue precautionary statements like ‘may contain’ for legal reasons, without performing any risk assessment.”

Further guidance on HARPC will be important for advancing safety measures around allergen control at food manufacturers. Until then, we may have to settle for “may.”

- Abi and the Allergy Amulet Team

 

This piece was written by the Allergy Amulet team and reviewed by Dr. Bert Popping and Dr. Scott Brooks for accuracy. 

Dr. Bert Popping is the managing director of FOCOS, a food consulting group based in Germany. Dr. Popping has over 20 years of experience in the food industry, and has authored over 50 publications on topics including food authenticity, food analysis, validation, and regulatory assessments.

Dr. Scott Brooks is a food safety consultant and founder of River Run Consulting. He is the former Senior VP of Quality & Food Safety, Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at Kraft Foods, and prior to that was the VP of Global Food Safety, Scientific & Regulatory Affairs, and Quality Policy at PepsiCo.

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