This is part of a series of posts from Sharon Wong, blogger at Nut Free Wok, reporting from the Food Allergy Research and Education Annual Conference.

Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) hosts an annual conference for individuals, families, and professionals who are interested in food allergies. I spent a wonderful weekend in San Antonio at the FARE conference, April 28-30, 2017. Approximately 200 people were in attendance to “connect, inspire, and unite” around the topic of living with food allergies and anaphylaxis.

Please note that although these snippets of information are from top medical doctors, please always consult a board certified allergist/doctor to manage your allergies.

How to Read a Food Label: What Does the Law Require?

I also attended an allergen labeling session with Dr. Steve Gendel, Ph.D., VP, Division of Food Allergens at IEH Laboratories and Consulting Group. Dr. Gendel is a former FDA food allergen coordinator who gave an insider’s in-depth perspective about the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). The information presented during his session is crucial for people with food allergies to determine whether a product contains their allergen or not before eating it.

FALCPA and Food Labeling

FALCPA went into effect in 2006 and applies to FDA regulated foods. FALCPA defines the top 8 major food allergens in the US as peanut, tree nuts, wheat, egg, milk, soy, fish, and shellfish and defines how manufacturers are required to use plain language. It also removed labeling exemptions for processing aids, colors, and flavors which contain a top 8 allergen.

Food manufacturers are required to be truthful about ingredients used intentionally in their products but they are not required to make any statements about allergens introduced unintentionally via cross-contact.

Allergen statements, however, such as “may contain…” are not regulated by the FDA and each meaning can vary among manufacturers. He shared some examples:

  • “Made in same facility…” could literally refer to manufacturing in the same building or on the same campus but in buildings 100 yards apart.
  • “Made on shared equipment…” could depend on the equipment cleaning procedure. Does the manufacturer rinse the equipment or perform a normal clean or a thorough allergen clean? An allergen label doesn’t give you specific information via a statement and the terms have no defined meaning.
  • Does “…allergen free facility” also apply to the manufacturer’s lunch room and offices? Does it mean no ingredients containing that allergen are used or does the statement include the whole supply chain? Does anyone check, who is responsible for checking, and how well?
  • “May contain…” does that mean it may contain a certain allergen often or rarely? How much does it contain, a little or a lot? And what does “may contain traces” mean, 1% or more?

The basic take home message of reading labels for allergens is to be skeptical about what does the label mean and to be careful. The FDA does not regulate “free from” types of label with the exception of gluten, which must be less than 20 ppm in order to be considered gluten-free. Some other caveats include:

  • Vegan and kosher parve labels are not considered free-from claims
  • “Allergy friendly” can mean different things to different manufacturers
  • Don’t rely on certification symbols on packaging unless you know that there is a real and reliable organization behind it.
  • FDA and FALCPA do not require companies to give consumers additional information on manufacturing, and if they do, it’s a out of goodwill.
  • Consumer phone and email helplines differ in quality between companies.

The biggest problem with food allergies and ingredient labels are when the labels are incorrect due to mislabeling or mispackaging. Packages are mislabeled when an ingredient is missing from the label. Sometimes food products are mispackaged when the food inside the container is not that same as what is indicated on the package. When we experience a problem with mislabeling or mispackaging, Dr. Gendel strongly urges consumers to issue complaints to three entitites: to the retailer and the producer and the FDA to ensure that the issue is properly addressed.

To learn more about any of these topics, visit FARE’s website, and consult with your allergist for more information. 

Sharon Wong FARE 2017

Sharon Wong blogs at Nut Free Wok – crafting allergen-aware asian fare. She is a food allergy mom, who uses her own experiences with recipes, cooking techniques, Asian ingredients, and food allergy-related awareness and advocacy issues, to help her blog readers navigate a nut-free life in a nut-full world.