Under current Food and Drug Administration requirements, even trace amounts of a possible allergen in a product are enough to warrant a warning label that says it contains the substance. However, researchers have found that in many cases, it is such a miniscule amount that very few, if any, allergic people would have a reaction to it.
“The public health sector has not established a regular threshold, so there is a de facto zero threshold,” said Benjamin Remington, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nebraska’s Food Allergy Research and Resource Program. “With no guidance, there’s overuse of precautionary labeling.”
Mr. Remington presented data on 450 peanut-allergic individuals in which the lowest dose observed to cause a mild reaction — 0.4 mg of whole peanut — affected four people in the group. None reacted at 0.1 mg of whole peanut, he said.
Mr. Remington and others on the panel agreed that establishing a minimum limit for labeling would eliminate the confusion and inconsistency in current food warning labels. Consumers would know that a product with an allergy warning has enough of the substance to potentially cause a reaction, rather than having to decipher language such as “may contain.” Thresholds also would decrease the number of food recalls linked to possible exposure to trace amounts of a known allergen.
Brent Kobielush, manager of toxicology for General Mills, Inc., said many consumers avoid purchasing products that contain or may contain an allergen, even if it affects only one person in a family. Overuse of allergy labeling means their limited choices may be further restricted unnecessarily.
Steve Gendel, food allergen coordinator for the F.D.A., said there is a government working group gathering data on allergen risks to determine if minimum amounts for labeling should be established. In the meantime, however, he stressed that full avoidance is the only way to prevent a reaction.
“Food allergies are a major public health issue,” he said. “There is no cure, so avoidance is the only option, and avoidance requires complete, accurate and clear labels.”