WASHINGTON — Efforts by legislators and federal regulators to ensure sesame is acknowledged to be an allergen and that product labels disclose to consumers its presence in any form or amount in food advanced in November.

The House of Representatives on Nov. 17, in the waning days of the 116th Congress, passed the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research Act (HR 2117, or the FASTER Act), which would make labeling for the ingredient sesame as an allergen mandatory and direct the Food and Drug Administration to recognize sesame as the ninth major food allergen for which labeling is required.

The bill also would allow the FDA, through regulation, to add other food ingredients as major allergens based on scientific criteria that establishes a public health concern. Additionally, the bill would support research to help develop more effective treatments for food allergies by expanding the collection of prevalence and patient experience data.

“While mandatory labeling is required for major food allergens recognized by the FDA like milk, eggs and peanuts, FDA labeling requirements do not include the ingredient sesame, leaving more than 1.6 million Americans with a sesame allergy in the dark about what foods and products to avoid,” said Representative Doris Matsui of California, who introduced the FASTER Act in April 2019. “The FASTER Act is the solution — legislation that would not only update labeling laws to include sesame, but also lay the groundwork to help understand, treat, and one day prevent food allergies.”

After passing the House, the FASTER Act was referred to the Senate, where, in March 2020, Senators Tim Scott of South Carolina and Chris Murphy of Connecticut introduced a companion bill to the House measure. The Scott-Murphy bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

It was not certain whether the Senate would be able to take up the legislation as a standalone bill or as part of other pressing legislation before the end of the year.

FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education, a non-governmental organization engaged in food allergy advocacy and the largest private funder of food allergy research) commended the House for passing the FASTER Act, but acknowledged FASTER may not be passed in the Senate before the 116th Congress adjourns.

“To see this bill move forward today, getting this much closer to becoming a law, is a true achievement,” said Lisa Gable, chief executive officer of FARE.

FARE said it will seek to introduce both bills (the House and Senate FASTER bills) during the first 100 days of the 117th Congress.

Separately, the FDA on Nov. 10 issued a draft guidance for industry on voluntary sesame labeling to encourage manufacturers to “clearly declare sesame in the ingredient list, when it is used as a ‘flavoring’ or ‘spice’ or when the common or usual name (such as tahini) does not specify sesame.”

The FDA affirmed sesame has been identified as an allergen but is not one of eight major food allergens required by the 2004 Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). At the same time, FDA acknowledged that in most instances, sesame must appear in the ingredient statement.

“An exception is when sesame is part of a flavoring or spice,” the FDA explained. “In those cases, it may be declared simply ‘spice’ or ‘flavor’ on the label without requiring ‘sesame’ to be included, so its presence may not be obvious to consumers. The FDA is recommending that manufacturers voluntarily declare sesame following the spice or flavor, such as, ‘spice (sesame)’ or ‘flavor (sesame)’. FDA is also recommending if a term is used for a food that is or contains sesame, such as tahini, sesame should be voluntarily included in parenthesis following the ingredient.”

The FDA noted it does not have authority to amend the eight major food allergens established by FALCPA.  Those major food allergens include: milk, eggs, fish (e.g., bass, flounder, or cod), crustacean shellfish ((e.g., crab, lobster, or shrimp), tree nuts (e.g., almonds, pecans, or walnuts), wheat, peanuts and soybeans.

“However, it has the authority under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to require labeling for other food allergens not covered by the requirements in FALCPA,” the FDA said. “The FDA continues to assess allergens of public health importance, including potential science-based options to empower consumers with information about these allergens.”