Protecting Yourself From Food Allergies
By Felicia Billingslea, Director of the Food Labeling and Standards Staff, FDA
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
Having the top eight with broken down by ingredient labels is great for some people which are affected by those allergies, but think of the individual with a corn allergy. Corn is almost everywhere in our food system and many other household items we use daily. The majority of those manufacturers do not itemize these concerns as they are not even required to label such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, hardware, paint and cleaning supplies, stationary supplies. This list can actually just keep right on going. Also, on many labels when the words maltodextrin, modified food starch, citric acid and many more are used, these items can be sourced from different products or even from different countries. Often these differences can mean trouble for anyone with an allergy and yet this type of information is not even included on the label. Yes, we have a labeling system that helps to some degree but it is unfortunate that so much more is needed to verify more people's safety. As you stated yourself, people are still being transported to the hospital-and dying- even with the current labeling system in place.
The US consumers have the right to know that their food is GMO label the food and let the consumers make a choice for their families!
It would also be helpful if all ingredients were mandated to be listed, especially natural flavors, but also artificial. I know this has been attempted unsuccessfully.
I would like to see ALL GMO food labeled as such. I am spending a fortune in organic food, because I don't want to feed my family any of this unsafe, untested food. The American public is being used as guinea pigs, and most people don't even realize they are eating food that is modified with organisms that nature would have never intended. It may take generations to find out the true horror of these genetically modified foods. This includes genes from virus and bacteria incorporated (grown) in our food, among other untested, dna modified foods. These foods also tend to have a higher pesticide level. Many countries (not the USA) have totally banned these GMO's. Why is our government not protecting us? We are growing more of our own food at home, but would like to go to the grocery store (where it is now estimated 70-80% of all grocery store food contains GMO's) and be able to buy safe, pure and natural food to feed my family.
With three children in the house, mysterious allergies were not uncommon in our house but ever since we changed over to a completely vegan kitchen, we've had almost no problems at all.
I would like the FDA to enforce the production DATE, which for me more important than the expiration date. I don't think it is hard to do such when we call other countries the third world and they have the production date/ expiration date ( better information's for the consumers). I have been talking about this for the past 25 years. YOU think you can follow on this issue immediately. MY allergy only comes when I can't tell the date of production/ manufacturing, even which exact country came from. Since I'm writing about the issue will be also better to clarify: Packaged in USA - meaning the merchandise came in big containers and emptied in the US, so if there is any contamination we can trace it to the source. IT is very simple if we address the issues and follow thoroughly, not wait ten years to close any plant doing wrong and harming consumers. Thank You
I can go almost anywhere without eating food, but I cannot go anywhere without breathing the air. I wish CDC would do something to protect those of us with severe respiratory allergies (asthma) from being assaulted by "scents" and "air fresheners" that are being added to almost everything in our environment in recent years.
The new labeling requirements are a HUGE improvement. My 8-year old is increasingly able to take responsibility for reading his own labels in a concrete and semi-reliable fashion. I am unclear when "natural flavors" is used if it might include one of the standard 8 allergens, or must that at least be stated? Also, in the next round, it would be helpful to regularize the precise meaning and use of what appear to be CYA "add on" ingredients so low on the list as to suggest nano quantities -- not part of the formulation of the product but perhaps included because the lawyers recommended it? These and the meaning of the "manufactured in a facility that uses..." or "on equipment that uses..." or "may contain trace elements..." style disclaimers are extremely frustrating. Obviously there are some kids who cannot risk cross contamination (e.g., of nuts) and need statements of this nature. However, for other people, there may be a balance of ability to participate more fully in consumption (e.g., at a social event where separate food is ostracizing) against risk of minute unintentional inclusions of allergens (along with the ever-present risk of undeclared allergens in any manufactured product). Understanding exactly what the nature of that risk is would be helpful.
And round two: When can we get restaurants to post and/or have reliable information on hand about the inclusion of any of the 8 major allergens?
I'm confused as to how to read for ingredients with SOY. I have a soy allergy and I am to avoid all soy. Because it's disguised as so many different ingredients (i.e. 'natural flavors', xanthan gum, locust bean gum, guar gum, gum arabic, vegetable oil, the list goes on and on) it can take hours to grocery shop! I can find in the ingredient list if there is vegetable oil and the various gums, but 'natural flavors' and xanthan gum and others MAY contain soy but may not. If there is no allergen statement, how do I know? Is it required that there be an allergen statement? I thought they only had to list EITHER all the ingredients OR ALLERGENS: Contains Soy... It would be so helpful if this were more clearly stated! Please explain how to look for it on labels! Thanks so much!