Food makers agree on labeling allergy-inducing foods

Thursday, May 31st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Food labels may soon disclose the sources of flavorings that could cause allergic reactions, such as butter or peanuts, and use more easily understood terms for ingredients like casein, a milk product.

The food industry issued a series of voluntary guidelines Thursday for labeling foods so that consumers can more easily avoid allergy-inducing products.

Technical terms for ingredients such as casein or albumen, the white of an egg, won't disappear from labels, but packages will put the common terms, milk or eggs, in a special label or add them to the ingredient list.

The Food and Drug Administration welcomed the standards, saying in a letter to the industry that they are a ``significant step forward'' and a ``major health benefit to the food allergy sensitive consumer.''

``It will make life safer for individuals with food allergies and their families,'' said Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, an advocacy group that receives some industry funding. ``It will cut down on phone calls to companies about ingredient information, saving the companies some money.''

Putting common terms on food labels will especially help children, she said.

Some 7 million Americans who suffer from food allergies rely on ingredient labels to tell which processed foods are safe for them to consume. Some allergic reactions, particularly to peanuts, can be fatal, claiming about 150 lives a year.

Eight food groups in addition to peanuts are responsible for most allergic reactions: Crustaceans such as crab and lobster, eggs, fish, milk, soy, tree nuts such as almonds and walnuts, and wheat.

Janet Leydorf of Gambrills, Md., said the guideline on disclosure of flavoring sources will help her daughter, who is allergic to milk and peanuts. When the child was 4, she developed hives after eating a birthday party treat that was covered in icing. A flavoring in the icing was made from milk, Leydorf discovered after calling the manufacturer.

``It's a lot easier to prevent this problem (an allergic reaction) than to deal with it after it occurs,'' she said.

Because the trade groups can't enforce the standards, there is no penalty for companies that don't follow them.

``Politically, these recommendations are designed to undercut legislation or regulations,'' said Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.

Industry officials say government regulation isn't needed and that consumer pressure will force companies to comply.

``Food allergies are as much a priority for the industry as it is for FDA and any other agency. It was important to have some kind of consensus about what to label and how to label food allergens,'' said Lisa Katic, director of scientific and nutrition policy for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Some companies, including cereal makers, already have been putting special labels on products.

Kellogg's new Atlantis cereal has a special label that says: ``Contains wheat and milk ingredients. Corn used in this product contains traces of soybeans.''

The standards discourage food makers from indiscriminate use of a warning label such as ``May contain peanuts.'' Some companies are routinely using such labels to protect themselves against lawsuits, Munoz-Furlong said.

Under the guidelines, such labels should be used ``judiciously'' and only when manufacturers can't avoid the possibility of allergens in their products.