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Labeling foods isn't enough
New legislation is merely a good start in the real world of food allergies

RICHARD AMRHINE
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Date published: 1/16/2005

By RICHARD AMRHINE

A YEAR FROM NOW, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act signed by President Bush in August will become law.

The legislation will require food manufacturers to identify, in plain language, the presence in their products of any of the eight major food allergens: milk, egg, peanut, tree nut, fish, shellfish, wheat, or soy.

It will also help stem the longstanding threat of previously exempt "hidden ingredients," requiring food labels to indicate the presence of such allergens in spices, flavorings, additives, and colorings.

This is a big deal, given that an estimated 11 million Americans suffer from food allergies. Some 30,000 Americans obtain hospital treatment for reactions each year, and 200 of them die, according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

But the legislation is no panacea. In fact, given the real-world experiences a food-allergic person faces, it is little more than a good start.

Allergen labeling is to the food industry as seat belts were to the auto industry. Both industries used their power to stifle government and organizational reform efforts as long as they could, citing the expense and questioning the value. While the food manufacturing and service industries may comply with the letter of the new law, will they comply with its spirit as well?

In recent years, major cookie and candy manufacturers have gone wild with "may contain" warnings and cross-contamination alerts, such as "produced on machinery used for products that include peanuts."

It is, in fact, difficult to find on grocery store shelves any candy or cookie whose label doesn't have such a warning. That's just great, except for a peanut-allergic child, such as my daughter, who likes treats as much as any child.

Such warnings are not intended to protect the consumer as much as the litigation-exposed butts of lazy, penny-pinching food-manufacturers.

Some health-food stores offer allergen-free brands, but they generally, with all due respect, don't taste very good.

The legislation calls on the government to inspect food-manufacturing facilities in coming years with the intent of reducing or eliminating the threat of cross-contamination.

The government will find, as my wife and I have found, that some manufacturers are more cooperative than others.


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