As the Director of the FDA’s Food Labeling and Standards Staff, it’s my job to ensure that consumers have accurate, complete, and informative labels on the food that they buy. One of the areas that is a top concern for us from a food safety perspective is food allergies.
If you or a member of your family suffer from food allergies, you must protect yourself at all times. While some allergies are just irritating, approximately 30,000 Americans go to the emergency room each year to get treated for severe food allergies.
What is a food allergy? It is a specific type of adverse food reaction involving the immune system. The body produces an allergic antibody to a food. Once a specific food is eaten and binds with the antibody, an allergic response occurs.
A food allergy is not the same as a food intolerance or other non-allergic food reactions. A food intolerance is an abnormal response to a food or additive, but it does not involve the immune system. Compared to food intolerances, food allergies pose a much greater health risk.
In fact, it is estimated that 150 to 200 Americans die each year because of allergic reactions to food.
What are the symptoms of a food allergy? The most common symptoms are:
- Hives, itching, or skin rash
- Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other parts of the body
- Wheezing, nasal congestion, or trouble breathing
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
In a severe allergic reaction to food, you may have more extreme versions of the above reactions. Or you may experience life-threatening symptoms such as:
- Swelling of the throat and air passages that makes it difficult to breathe
- Shock, with a severe drop in blood pressure
- Rapid, irregular pulse
- Loss of consciousness
To reduce the risks, FDA is working to ensure that major allergenic ingredients in food are accurately labeled. Since 2006, food labels must state clearly whether the food contains a major food allergen. The following are considered to be major food allergens:
- Tree nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans
- Shellfish such as crab, lobster, and shrimp
These foods account for 90 percent of all food allergies in the United States
So, remember to take all measures to protect yourself and your family members who suffer from food allergies. In addition to avoiding food items that cause a reaction, we recommend that you:
- Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace stating that you have a food allergy
- Carry an auto-injector device containing epinephrine (adrenaline)
- Seek medical help immediately if you experience a food allergic reaction
On Mother’s Day, many families have a tradition: the kids prepare and serve breakfast in bed for Mom. It’s a great opportunity not just to celebrate mothers but also to help kids learn the basic lessons of food safety. Besides, the goal is to serve a safe, delicious breakfast in bed – not give Mom a foodborne illness that will leave her sick in bed!
Lesson 1. Keep Everything Clean
Bacteria and viruses can be hiding just about anywhere: in the kitchen, on a plate and on hands. These invisible enemies can make Mom sick. Always wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before and after preparing food, after playing with pets or handling pet food, and after using the bathroom.
Wash all fruits and vegetables with running tap water before cutting or eating them. Put food on clean surfaces only. Always use clean knives, forks, spoons, and plates.
Lesson 2. Keep Raw and Cooked Foods Separated
Cross-contamination is the scientific word for how bacteria can be spread from one food to another. To prevent cross-contamination, always keep raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood (and their juices) away from ready-to-eat foods.
Always wash cutting boards, dishes and utensils with hot, soapy water after they come in contact with raw meat, poultry, eggs, and seafood. Never place cooked food on a plate that previously held raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
Lesson 3. Cook Food to Safe Temperatures
You can’t see, smell, or taste bacteria that cause foodborne illness. That’s why you should use a food thermometer to make sure food has reached a safe internal temperature. You can't tell food is cooked safely by how it looks.
Always place the food thermometer in the thickest part of the food, away from bone and fat, to check the temperature. Always cook eggs before eating them. When cooked, eggs should be firm, not runny.
Lesson 4. Keep Perishable Foods Cold
To grow and multiply, bacteria need time and the right environment: moisture and warmth. Most bacteria grow quickly between 40 °F and 140 °F (the Danger Zone). Some bacteria can double their numbers every 20 minutes.
Some foods that need to stay cold (at 40 °F or below) include sandwiches or salads made with meat and poultry; tuna and egg salad; milk, cheese, and yogurt; and peeled or cut fruits and vegetables.
Refrigerate any leftovers from Mom’s special meal within 2 hours. Throw out perishable food left out for more than 2 hours, and don’t feed it to your pets. Even pets are susceptible to foodborne bacteria. To reheat leftovers safely, make sure they reach 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer.
A great resource to help kids learn the basics of food safety is the Be Food Safe Activity Book. This activity book contains twelve pages of colorful puzzles and games that teach food safety principles in a fun and entertaining way.
Questions and Answers
Posted May 17, 2010, updated June 3, 2010
Q. What about freezing leftovers and storing in the freezer for a month or two?
A. Food that is kept frozen (constantly at 0 degrees F) will always be safe. Only the quality suffers with lengthy storage. For guidelines on storing leftovers and other foods, see Storage Times for the Refrigerator and Freezer.
Q. What about freezer burn?
A. Freezer burn appears as grayish-brown leathery spots on food. It's caused by air reaching the surface of the food. The product remains safe to eat, but the areas with freezer burn will be dried out and tasteless. If you'd like, you can trim away freezer-burned portions, either before or after cooking the food. If the food is heavily freezer-burned, you may have to discard it for quality reasons. It may be too dried to eat or have an unpleasant flavor.
I think it is very important for consumers to realize that protecting your family against foodborne illnesses begins not at home, but at the supermarket, grocery store, or any other place where you buy food that you plan to store and serve. According to the CDC, foodborne ailments cause about 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,200 deaths nationwide each year. So, here are some simple things that you can do while you are shopping for food to safeguard you and your family:
- Check for cleanliness
Buy from a retailer who follows proper food handling practices. This helps assure that the food is safe. Ask yourself: What is my general impression of this facility? Does it look and smell clean?
- Keep certain foods separated
Separate raw meat, poultry, and seafood from other foods in your grocery shopping cart. Place these foods in plastic bags to prevent their juices from dripping on other foods. It is also best to separate these foods from other foods at checkout and in your grocery bags.
- Inspect cans and jars
Don't buy food in cans that are bulging or dented. Also, don't buy food in jars that are cracked or have loose or bulging lids. A bulging can or jar lid may mean the food was under-processed and is contaminated. Don't buy a food product whose seal seems tampered with or damaged.
- Inspect frozen food packaging
Don't buy frozen food if the package is damaged. Packages should not be open, torn or crushed on the edges. Also, avoid packages that are above the frost line in the store's freezer. If the package cover is transparent, look for signs of frost or ice crystals. This could mean that the food in the package has either been stored for a long time or thawed and refrozen.
- Select frozen foods and perishables last
And, meat, poultry, fish and eggs should be the last items placed in your shopping cart. Always put these products in separate plastic bags so that drippings don't contaminate other foods.
- Choose fresh eggs carefully
Before putting eggs in your cart, open the carton and make sure that the eggs are clean and none is cracked. Buy only refrigerated eggs and follow the "Safe Handling Instructions" on the carton.
- Be mindful of time and temperature
It's important to refrigerate perishable products as soon as possible after grocery shopping. Food safety experts stress the "2-hour rule"—because harmful bacteria can multiply in the "danger zone" (between 40° and 140° F), perishable foods should not be left at room temperature longer than 2 hours. Modify that rule to 1 hour when temperatures are above 90° F, as they often are in cars that have been parked in the sun.
If it will take more than an hour to get your groceries home, use an ice chest to keep frozen and perishable foods cold. Also, when the weather is warm and you are using your car's air conditioner, keep your groceries in the passenger compartment, not the trunk.
Combating foodborne illnesses is a top priority at the FDA – we hope it will be for you too!
Questions and Answers
Posted May 4, 2010
Q: It seems to be more foodborne illnesses now than in the past. Is it?
A: The CDC’s FoodNet MMWR report, which was released earlier this month, indicates that the rates of six different foodborne illnesses have declined when compared with 1996-1998. However, most have shown little change since 2004. The notable exceptions in the report are E. coli O157:H7 infections, which declined to their lowest point since 2004, and Vibrio infections, which increased by 85% when compared with 1996-1998. For more details, see Incidence of Foodborne Illness, 2009.
Q: I am always concerned regarding food handlers wearing gloves. Is this a federal or a state mandated law?
A: Some states have laws requiring food handlers to wear gloves. Others do not. The FDA Food Code contains recommendations for the use of different types of gloves, but the Food Code is not law; it is a model code and reference document for state and local agencies that regulate retail food stores and foodservice operations.
Q: Is there a way to inform a large supermarket's central or regional office of consistently bad practices in their local stores?
Separate government agencies are responsible for protecting different segments of the food supply. If you have experienced a problem with a food product, be sure to contact the appropriate public health organization. For help with grocery store food problems, call the health department in your city, county or state. You may want to consult the State Agencies page to link to your state's health department.