WASHINGTON -- Manufacturers whose products contain any of the "Big 8" food allergens -- peanuts, soybeans, milk, eggs, fish, crustaceans, tree nuts and wheat -- are being urged to follow the new labeling guidelines unveiled here last week.
Under the voluntary guidelines, prepared by a coalition of food trade associations with the goal of staving off governmental action, labels would clearly identify allergens in simple terms and within, or in immediate proximity to, the ingredient panel.
Until now, regulations required allergens to be cited in scientific, and often confusing, terms, like whey instead of milk, semolina rather than wheat, and albumin for eggs. The "Big 8" allergens are estimated to cause more than 90% of all food allergic reactions. More allergens may be added to the list in the future.
Manufacturers will also disclose the presence of allergens when they are part of a flavor additive or processing aid, according to the guidelines. This means that instead of saying "natural flavor," a label will specify what the flavor is, such as "natural wheat flavor."
The change is designed to help consumers make a clear decision about whether a food is appropriate for them to eat, Lisa Katic, R.D., director of scientific and nutrition policy at the Grocery Manufacturers of America here, told SN.
"The most significant change will be easy-to-understand language on labels," Katic said.
GMA is a member of the Food Allergy Issues Alliance, which developed the rules. Along with the GMA, the Alliance had representation from 15 food trade associations, including the American Frozen Food Institute, National Confectioners Association, Snack Food Association and International Diary Foods Association.
Leslie Sarasin, president and chief executive officer of the American Frozen Food Institute, McLean, Va., which represents such manufacturers as Kraft Foods and the Coca-Cola Co.'s Minute Maid unit, said many frozen food companies are already communicating allergy information to consumers, and she expects more will now follow suit.
"We will be working closely with our members to educate them on the importance of how they label their products," she said.
Manufacturers of other types of food, especially cereal, have also embraced the effort. Companies like Kellogg Co. and General Mills have identified allergens on their labels for several years. Officials from Kellogg and General Mills were unavailable for comment.
Nearly 7 million people, many of whom are children, suffer from food allergies. Adverse food reactions are the cause of 30,000 emergency room visits and nearly 200 deaths per year, according to Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder and chief executive officer of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, a Fairfax, Va.-based consumer advocacy group. The biggest culprits are peanuts and tree nuts (including Brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts and filberts/hazelnuts).
"For some people, just one bite of the wrong food can be fatal," Munoz-Furlong said.
Depending on how well manufacturers adopt and adhere to the rules, new government mandates may not be necessary, said Katic.