Food allergies pose a health threat to over 12 million
Americans. Severe reactions to allergenic foods result in 30,000 emergency room
visits, and 150 to 200 deaths, per year. Since 2006, the Food and Drug Administration has required companies to label their
packaging with clear warnings when their products deliberately contain particularly
allergenic ingredients such as dairy or peanuts.
To date, however, the FDA has not issued laws governing label-warnings
about the possibility of accidental contamination. In cases where non-allergenic
products are processed with the same equipment or in the same facility as
allergenic ones, it is up to each company to decide whether, and how, to
disclose this information to the public.
The result has been
an increasingly diverse array of warning messages that end up confusing and even
misleading consumers. With more than 30 different messages on the market, each
with its own distinct wording and tone, consumers are finding themselves
choosing foods based on which warnings sound less severe.
Significantly, food studies at the University of Nebraska
show no link between the severity of voluntary warnings and the actual risk
that a product contains an allergen.
The FDA recognizes the need for implementing labeling
standards across the food industry, and will respond to consumer concerns at a
public hearing on September 16, 2008.