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Food Allergy Warnings Confuse Consumers

Aug 26, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Federal regulators are planning to revise rules governing food allergy warnings.  Critics say that at the moment, the warnings are voluntary and vague, making it difficult for thousands of people dealing with food allergies to ascertain if a product poses a danger.

The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has scheduled  a public hearing on Sept. 16 to begin working on  "a long-term strategy" to address the confusion surrounding food allergy warnings.  In doing so, the agency has acknowledged that the voluntary system for placing such notices on foods may not be serving the public well.

About 12 million Americans have food allergies, and severe ones trigger 30,000 visits to the  emergency rooms, as well as 150 to 200 deaths annually. In 2006, a law was implemented that required easy-to-understand notices on foods when they intentionally contain highly allergenic ingredients such as peanuts or dairy.  But the law does not require similar warnings for foods that might accidently become contaminated because they were made in the same factory, or on the same machines, as allergen-containing products.  According to the FDA, that potential exists in about 25 percent of all food factories.

There is also no standard for the wording of food allergy warnings, and the differences in warnings from food to food can confuse consumers.  Weak wording on one food product label may lead consumers to believe it posses a less-serious risk than a food with a stronger warning, even when the danger is equal.

 For instance, according to the Associated Press, the FDA's own research indicates that consumers are more likely to heed warnings that a food "may contain" an allergen than those bearing "made in the same factory" labels.  Because no standards exist for such labels, both warnings are used on products with regularity. 

Even the food industry sees a problem with the current allergy warning system.  The Grocery Manufacturers of America has been working to set new guidelines on the warnings for more than a year, but wants to see what the FDA has to say on the subject before it makes an official comment.

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