Calorie counting may not be the only reason some people read ingredient labels on the foods they buy. More and more Americans are becoming allergic to foods and food ingredients. A food allergy, or hypersensitivity, is an abnormal immune response to a food or food ingredient. According to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, 1 in 25 American children are reported to have a food allergy, with an estimated 3 million school-aged children having a known food allergy or multiple food allergies. Peanut allergy in children has doubled in the past five years, while the estimated number of Americans with food allergy has increased from six million to approximately eleven million people.
An estimated 150 Americans die each year from severe allergic reactions to food, according to Dr. Hugh Sampson, M.D., director of the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Some foods can cause severe illness and, in some cases, anaphylaxis that can constrict airways in the lungs, severely lower blood pressure, and cause suffocation by the swelling of the tongue or throat.
In response to concerns that dangerous food allergies are on the rise, the American Medical Association (AMA) established a new policy in June, which recommended that schools provide more student and teacher education on food allergies. The AMA also recommended that schools have guidelines for managing food allergy emergencies, with epinephrine kits – the treatment of choice for severe reactions – on the premises with at least one staff member trained in their use.
Recognizing the need for better consumer protection, President George W. Bush signed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (S. 741) into law on August 3, 2004. The Act requires food manufacturers to clearly state on food labels if a product contains any of the eight major food allergens responsible for over 90% of all allergic reactions. Those allergens are: peanuts, shellfish, soy, wheat, milk, eggs, fish, and tree nuts. The new law will also require that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conduct inspections to ensure that the food manufacturers comply with practices to reduce or eliminate cross contact of a food with any of the major food allergens that are not intentional ingredients of that food. The new law will go into effect January 1, 2006. The Act also calls for the FDA to issue final regulations defining “gluten-free” and permits the voluntary labeling of products as “gluten-free” no later than 2008.