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BellaOnline's Allergies and Colds Editor

Accidental-allergy warnings create confusion

Label reading is serious business for people with food allergies or intolerances. Diligent ingredient checking is their best line of defense against food allergens that might sicken them. Yet some are ignoring label warnings that foods may “accidentally” contain one of the eight major food allergens.

“May contain peanuts” or “packaged in a facility that processes peanuts” are examples of accidental-allergy warnings. The warnings are entirely voluntary but are making their appearance on more and more products. Their overuse and vague wording, that suggests minimal risk, may be the reason the warnings are not taken seriously.

Warnings that make no sense or are on foods that never carried them before add to the problem. As an example, a package of fish sticks may carry the warning “may contain fish” or canned vegetables might be labeled “may contain nuts.”

The number of individuals who say they would never buy a food with an accidental-allergy warning has declined 10 percent with the proliferation of the "may contain statements," according to a survey conducted by the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network.

Foods with the warnings sometimes do contain allergens. The University of Nebraska conducted a test of 179 products with accidental peanut warnings. It revealed that seven percent did contain peanuts in amounts that could sicken someone with serious allergies.

Ignoring warnings can have dangerous consequences for the seriously allergic. Each year in the U.S., food allergies cause an estimated 30,000 emergency room visits, 2,000 hospitalizations and 150 deaths, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported.

Standards over the warnings seem to be needed. Concerns and comments about the accidental-allergy warnings can be sent to the FDA. Phone calls or letters should be directed to the district consumer complaint coordinator for your geographic area. A directory of complaint coordinators, listed by area, is located on the FDA website: http://www.fda.gov/

There is a bright spot in the labeling confusion. Allergic consumers can more easily identify the eight major food allergens, thanks to a labeling law that took effect last year. It requires products that intentionally contain one of the offending foods to disclose that in plain language. The eight allergens identified by the law are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. These foods account for 90 percent of allergic reactions and are the source from which many other ingredients are made.

The label must contain the common name of the food and indicate any major allergen used in spices, flavorings, additives or colorings. Food allergens may be listed in parentheses following the name of the ingredient. Example: peanut butter (peanuts), whey (milk), lecithin (soy). Allergens also may appear immediately after or next to the list of ingredients as a “contains” statement. Example: Contains peanuts, soy, wheat or milk. Food products labeled before January 1, 2006, may still be on grocery shelves but were not required to be re-labeled.

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