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The Food Allergy Research & Education Conference with Nut Free Wok: How To Read a Food Label

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 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:

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:

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 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.