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Food allergen law could cause unintended reaction

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Written Tuesday, November 09, 2004  

Depending on how it's interpreted, a new law designed to help the 12 million or so Americans suffering from food allergies may cause them some grief.

By Jan. 1, 2006, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) will require food manufacturers to clearly state on a product label if the food contains any of eight major food allergens: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy. Proteins in those foods are responsible for 90 percent of food allergies.

A speaker at a recent Ohio State University seminar addressed the new law. Steve Taylor, professor and chair of Food Science and Technology at the University of Nebraska, studies food allergens and at what levels cause a reaction in people who consume them.

"Food allergies are far more common than we thought when I started studying them 20 years ago," Taylor said.

It is estimated that 3.5 percent to 4 percent of the population has a food allergy. About 29,000 people visit emergency rooms each year because of food allergy reactions, and 150 to 200 Americans die from allergic reactions.

Taylor applauded FALCPA, saying the law will, for the most part, help consumers identify products that contain food allergens.

"A good example is casein, which is a milk protein," Taylor said. "If you see 'casein' on a food label, you may or may not know that it means the product contains milk. This law means that it clearly has to state that 'milk' is in the product."

While the law should help consumers make more informed choices, it could lead to confusion over what should and should not be listed on product labels, he said.

"Congress didn't get this 100 percent right," Taylor said. "The law says all ingredients have to be labeled by source. That could mean that a food even with a very trivial amount of one of those ingredients -- which would be very unlikely to cause an allergic reaction -- would have to have the allergen listed as an ingredient.

"Unless certain provisions are made to account for this kind of thing, there will be hundreds of products with those ingredients listed. Consumers will say, 'I've been eating this for 20 years and never had a problem, and now it has this allergen on the label.'"

For example, nearly all commercially baked good manufacturers use lecithin, a soy product, as an anti-sticking agent, much like consumers use cooking spray at home. Lecithin contains minuscule amounts of soy protein, and the protein is what causes the allergic reaction, Taylor said.

"Such small amounts are used, and the levels are likely very safe," he said.

The same holds true for products with soybean oil. The oil contains so little protein that the soybean oil is probably safe.

However, if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration strictly interprets the law, any product with soy lecithin or soybean oil would have to list soy in its ingredients, leaving allergic consumers to wonder about its potential effects.

"Labeling should be based on risk," Taylor said. "If there's no risk, there should be no label."

The law, which was signed by President Bush this past August, provides food companies with a petition process for requesting exemptions from the labeling requirements in questionable cases, Taylor said. "But the Food and Drug Administration will have to come up with that process, and they'll need to do it quickly, so companies can have 2005 to go through the process and come up with new labels."

Taylor is director of the University of Nebraska's Food Processing Center and conducts research through the university's Food Allergy Research and Resource Program. He was invited to Ohio State as the first winner of the Department of Food Science and Technology's Ronald D. Harris Distinguished Food Scientist Award.

Named for an Ohio State alumnus and former vice president of Kraft-Nabisco, the new award honors outstanding scholars who advance food science.


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