Understand the Label Before You Take a Bite

Understand the Label Before You Take a Bite

When the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) was passed in 2004, things got a little easier for food allergic families. That’s not to say that we still don’t have some deciphering and detective work to do. FALCPA, after all, requires manufacturers to clearly call out the top 8 allergens on prepackaged food items when the allergen is an ingredient. This is an important caveat for a few reasons: 

  • Although eight foods (or food groups) account for a majority of food allergies in the US, allergens are not limited to the top 8. Individuals with allergens beyond peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, milk, egg, wheat, and soy may still need to dig a little deeper to affirm a particular item is safe for them.
  • The law applies specifically to pre-packaged foods. Bakery items, butchered meats, take-out meals, and other such foods are not required to label for allergens. 
  • Manufacturers are only required to label if a major allergen is an ingredient in the recipe. Labeling for cross contamination risk is voluntary and wording is not standardized. This can lead to confusion as consumers are not clear on the optional labeling.  
  • Non-food items are not included under FALCPA’s umbrella and yet, items like cosmetics, body lotions, art supplies, and more can contain food allergens – including the top 8. 

Be aware

So what’s a food allergy family to do? The first step is simple: be aware that food allergens may lurk even in the places you don’t expect. Milk may be present in chalk. Nut oils could show up in your favorite body lotion. Egg could be a component of your child’s art supplies. This reminder isn’t meant to scare you. It’s meant to remind you to be alert and to do your due diligence whether you’re buying potato chips or body wash.

Read the label

By due diligence we mean read the label. Don’t just toss that fabulous red lipstick in your cart. Pull out the reading glasses (because you know that font is small!) and read the label. Scan it carefully for the allergens you’re avoiding. Before you slather on the sunblock, take a look at what went into that bottle. Don’t let your toddler get elbow deep into the finger paints until you’ve scanned the ingredient list. 

Know the lingo

FALCPA requires companies to label prepackaged food items for the top 8 allergens in clear, unmistakable terms. Whether the ingredient list says “milk,” or “contains milk” is included in an allergen statement below the ingredient list, there will be no doubt that milk is present. Items outside the scope of FALCPA don’t have to be quite as clear. That means you’ll need to be prepared to look for a variety of terms like whey, casein, and lactose to be sure that bar of soap you’re about to purchase is really safe for your milk allergic child. (You’ll find a helpful list of terms associated with each of the major allergens at foodallergy.org and kidswithfoodallergies.org.) 

Ask questions

Allergic to mustard? That bottle of marinade you’re eyeballing doesn’t say it contains mustard but it does say it contains natural seasonings. Which is to say it’s possible that mustard is part of the unlisted ingredients that set that product apart from its peers. Pick up the phone and call the manufacturer, but be specific with what you’re asking. Don’t say “Can you tell me what’s included in the natural seasonings in your marinade?” Such an approach may get pushback surrounding proprietary blends and trademarked recipes. You don’t need to know how to replicate the secret sauce, you just want to know if you can safely eat it, right? Try this instead: “I (or “a member of my family”) am allergic to mustard. I’m trying to determine if your product is safe for me. Can you tell me if mustard is an ingredient in your marinade?” If you can’t get a straight answer, think twice about whether you want to use that product. 

Advocate

As noted above, when FALCPA was passed in 2004, it required labeling for 8 major food allergens. Today, efforts are underway to include sesame as the 9th food on that list. This small seed is a common component of everything from baked goods to sushi and it’s increasingly becoming more predominant on the list of common food allergens. Advocacy groups like FARE and AAFA are lobbying to have FALCPA updated to include sesame, expanding the list of major allergens covered by the law to “the top 9.” Add your voice to the list of others calling on the federal government to make this change. You can find more information on both groups’ websites. 

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