Americans who suffer from food allergies are one step closer to having common allergens clearly identified in plain English on food labels after proposed new legislation cleared the latest phase of its passage into law last week. If ultimately signed into law, the bill would bring about the first food-label changes since the passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act in 1990.
The new legislation, sponsored by Senator Edward Kennedy cleared the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last Wednesday with the support of several key Republicans, including the committee's ranking Republican member Judd Gregg, and the Senate's only physician, Bill Frist.
"Right now it's really hard for parents of children with food allergies to spot common food allergens on ingredients lists," said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of several high profile groups which is supporting the new regulations.
"But if this bill becomes law, parents won't have to worry that the most common and dangerous allergens are lurking behind unfamiliar words, or hidden in 'natural flavourings'."
The bill would require food manufacturers to use familiar words like 'milk' or 'wheat' to explain more obscure terms like 'casein' or 'semolina'. The bill would also close a major loophole that lets allergens present in spices, flavourings or colourings to go undisclosed on ingredients lists. In order to gain bipartisan support, however, language improving the readability of ingredients lists was dropped from the bill. That language called for standardised font, colour contrast and upper-and-lower-case print.
Eight ingredients - peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, soybeans and wheat - account for most allergic reactions, the CSPI said. Allergic reactions to food result in some 29,000 hospitalisations and 150 deaths in the US each year.
Not everyone shares the CSPI's support for the new legislation, however. Many of the leading US food industry associations have complained that the new rules would impose unreasonable restrictions on their business, and that many of the objectives in the bill are already achievable under current Food & Drug Administration regulations.
Earlier this year, a letter signed by the National Milk Producers Federation, the American Farm Bureau, the National Association of Wheat Growers, United Egg Producers, the American Soybean Association, the Southern Peanut Farmers Federation, the Alabama Farmers Federation, the Alabama Peanut Producers Association, the Florida Peanut Producers Association and the George Peanut Commission and sent to the Senate Committee claimed that the labelling provisions of the new bill were "duplicative, costly, impracticable and unmanageable, while directly undermining the effective and co-operative efforts currently underway to improve food allergen management and labelling".
While the Committee will no doubt have taken these concerns on board - indeed, it delayed its proposed assessment of the bill in order to allow the food industry to draw up a list of concerns - the fact that it has nonetheless passed the proposed legislation leaves the industry with few options to prevent it from finally becoming law.
Legislators clearly believe that the food industry has a duty of care to provide consumers with the information they need to ensure that what they eat is safe, whatever the cost, and while current legislation may be able to force the industry to fulfil its duty, the fact remains that most labels do not meet the exacting standards set out in the new proposals - and that stricter legislation is therefore considered a necessity.