The issues surrounding food allergens are important for consumers and for individuals who work in the retail food industry. Exposure to food allergens is a risk factor that warrants a constant reminder so that we continue to focus on understanding the public health threats, labeling requirements, and important food handling interventions. Food allergens are one of the most commonly reported chemical hazards, and they are the number one reported reason for food recalls in the U.S.
Millions of Americans have allergic reactions to food each year. There are over 160 different food ingredients that have been identified as allergens. Eight of these allergens cause over 90% of food related allergenic reactions (FARRP, 2012). Allergenic responses vary from mild to severe to life threatening. People who are allergic to food ingredients rely on a) food products being properly labeled so that common allergens are identified, and b) effective food handling practices that minimize the potential for contamination and cross contamination by allergens. Unfortunately, there is no cure for food allergies. Strict avoidance of foods/food ingredients is the key to avoiding allergenic reactions. If a reaction begins, awareness and early recognition and response are critical to preventing serious health consequences.
There are over 160 different food ingredients that have been identified as allergens.
In 2004, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) was created. This law is overseen by FDA, and it applies to all imported and domestic foods whose labeling is regulated by FDA. With FALCPA, labels must clearly identify the food source names of all ingredients that are, or contain any protein derived from, the eight most common food allergens which FALCPA defines as "major food allergens." The intent of this food label is to help allergic consumers identify offending foods or ingredients so they can more easily avoid them.
FALCPA requires that the following eight foods be identified clearly on the label:
- Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod)
- Crustacean shellfish (e.g. crab, lobster, shrimp)
- Tree nuts (e.g., almonds, walnuts, pecans)
This requirement is met if the common name of an ingredient (i.e. buttermilk) that is a major food allergen already identifies that allergen's food source name (i.e., milk). Otherwise, the allergen's food source name must be declared at least once on the food label in one of two ways. The name of the food source of the major allergy must appear 1) in parentheses following the name of the ingredient. Examples: "lecithin (soy)," "flour (wheat)," and "whey (milk)," or, b) immediately after or next to the list of ingredients in a "contains" statement. Example: "Contains Wheat, Milk, and Soy."
FALCPA’s labeling requirements do not apply to the potential or unintentional presence of major food allergens in foods resulting from "cross-contact" situations during manufacturing, (i.e. because of shared equipment in processing lines). In the context of food allergens, "cross-contact" occurs when a residue or trace amount of an allergenic food becomes incorporated into another food not intended to contain it. FDA guidance for the food industry states that food allergen advisory statements, i.e. "may contain [allergen]" or "produced in a facility that also uses [allergen]," should not be used as a substitute for adhering to current good manufacturing practices and must be truthful and not misleading.
The appearance of symptoms after eating food is a common sign of a food allergy. Symptoms of food allergies typically appear from within a few minutes to two hours after a person has eaten the food to which he or she is allergic. The food(s) that caused these symptoms should be avoided, and the affected person, should contact a doctor or health care provider for appropriate testing and evaluation.
Allergic reactions can include a variety of symptoms including:
- flushed skin or rash
- tingling/itchy sensation of the mouth
- face/tongue/lip swelling
- abdominal cramps
- light headedness
- swelling of throat
- difficulty breathing
- loss of consciousness
Persons found to have a food allergy should be taught to read labels and avoid the offending foods. They should also be taught, in case of accidental ingestion, to recognize the early symptoms of an allergic reaction, and be properly educated on, and equipped with, appropriate treatment measures. Persons with a known food allergy who begin experiencing symptoms while, or after, eating a food should initiate treatment immediately, and go to a nearby emergency room if symptoms progress. Initially mild symptoms that occur after ingesting a food allergen are not always a measure of mild severity. If not treated promptly, these symptoms can become more serious in a very short amount of time, and could lead to anaphylaxis. This can lead to constricted airways in the lungs, severe lowering of blood pressure, and shock ("anaphylactic shock") suffocation by swelling of the throat. Each year in the U.S., it is estimated that anaphylaxis to food results in 30,000 emergency room visits 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths (FDA, 2012). Prompt administration of epinephrine by auto-injector (e.g., Epi-pen) during early symptoms of anaphylaxis may help prevent these serious consequences.
Each year in the U.S., it is estimated that anaphylaxis to food results in 30,000 emergency room visits 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths
People who have food allergies rely on the retail food industry to protect them from exposure to foods and ingredients that can trigger adverse reactions. The industry must take this responsibility very seriously and implement measures to protect their customers through proper handling and labeling of foods.
More information about food allergens can be obtained at:
- Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraskahttp://farrp.unl.edu/
- FDA website on food allergenshttp://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/SelectedHealthTopics/ucm119075.htm