Food Industry Issues Voluntary Guidelines on Allergens
The Grocery Manufacturers of America and the National Food Processors Association, two of the largest food industry groups, are issuing voluntary labeling guidelines that will indicate if products contain "everyday ingredients" that can cause potentially fatal allergic reactions, the New York Times reports. Under current law, manufacturers can add "trace" amounts of allergens, such as milk or eggs, as "incidental ingredients" without mentioning them on the packaging, listing them instead under the description "natural flavors" (Winter, New York Times, 5/31). Under the new guidelines, manufacturers would stop using such "blanket statements" and list specific allergens. For example, a product would list "natural peanut flavor" instead of the more general statement (Carroll, Wall Street Journal, 5/31). The guidelines apply to the eight food groups responsible for most allergic reactions: crustaceans, eggs, fish, milk, peanuts, soy, tree nuts and wheat. The new labeling requirements are also intended to stop "indiscriminate" warning labels, such as "May contain peanuts," which companies "routinely" use as liability protection. Instead, the labels are to be used "judiciously" and only when allergens must be added to products (AP/Washington Post, 5/31). The new labels also will use "plain language" in addition to the technical name to describe the allergens. In the case of "casein", a milk protein, "milk" would also be listed on the package (Wall Street Journal, 5/31). Although the new guidelines are voluntary and the trade groups cannot take action against companies who do not comply, industry officials say that firms have a "financial incentive" to follow the labeling rules. Regina Hildwine, food labeling director of the National Food Processors Association, said, "We are hoping that the marketplace drives this issue. Allergic consumers are going to choose the product that gives them more information. After all, it is their safety that is at stake and nobody's more aware of it than they are" (New York Times, 5/31). "If these guidelines work as intended we should head off the need for new regulations," she added.
The Journal reports that the voluntary guidelines come as "concern" about food allergens has "drastically increased." The FDA has made labels a "top priority" this year, and lawmakers are also beginning to "voice concerns." Under current law, food labels do not need to include ingredients contained in flavorings, colors or spices, and the FDA had planned an August meeting to discuss eliminating the current exemption. However, Lisa Katic of the Grocery Manufacturers of America, said the FDA "felt the guidelines resolved" many of the issues and put the industry "ahead of the curve." Meanwhile, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) has called for the FDA to impose fines on firms that do not disclose animal products in flavorings or colors (Wall Street Journal, 5/31). The Times reports that Democrats in the House and Senate are preparing the propose "even stiffer" requirements for food labels. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, "We simply can't rely on the industry's good faith to protect consumers with potentially fatal food allergies. Trust only gets us so far" (New York Times, 5/31).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.