NY Times (Apr 3, 2001): F.D.A. Finds Faulty Listings of Possible Food Allergens

Author:
Updated:
Original:

[url="http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/03/business/03FOOD.html"]http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/03/business/03FOOD.html[/url]

By GREG WINTER

An investigation of dozens of food companies by the Food and Drug Administration has found that in spite of strict labeling laws, as many as 25 percent of manufacturers failed to list common ingredients that can cause potentially fatal allergic reactions.

The mislabeling poses a threat to the roughly seven million Americans who suffer from food allergies and who rely on a product's packaging to keep them safe, according to the F.D.A.

In recent years, there has been a sharp increase in the amount of food recalled from store shelves for containing allergy- provoking ingredients like peanuts and eggs that were not listed on the product's label. Worried about the trend, the F.D.A. enlisted the support of state regulators in Minnesota and Wisconsin to undertake a series of inspections at food plants over the last two years, trying to grasp the extent of the problem and correct it at the source.

The agency examined 85 companies of all sizes that were likely to use common allergy triggers in abundance: cookie makers, candy companies and ice cream manufacturers. Its report, which was completed earlier this year, found that a quarter of the companies made products with raw ingredients like nuts, but omitted them from the labels describing the food.

Perhaps more surprising, only slightly more than half of the manufacturers checked their products to ensure that all of the ingredients were accurately reflected on the labels, the report said, making it all the more difficult for consumers to know which foods might cause allergic reactions that are often life-threatening.

"The fact that ingredient listings can be dead wrong certainly points to major shortfalls in food safety," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The accuracy of a label can really save a life."

Although the cause of food allergies is still something of a mystery, they are the most common cause of anaphylaxis, a severe reaction in which the skin itches, the throat swells and breathing becomes short. In the most serious cases, blood pressure falls, the heart beat fluctuates and some victims die.

The F.D.A. report does not discuss the prevalence of food allergies, but every year, 30,000 people are rushed to emergency rooms because of them, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. As many as 200 of them die.

Many of these illnesses occur at restaurants or in homes, and are not necessarily the fault of a food manufacturer. Some schools have removed peanut butter from their cafeterias and several airlines have taken steps to accommodate passengers who have food allergies, including banning peanuts as the traditional after-takeoff snack.

It is not clear how many allergic consumers have fatal reactions to mislabeled products, but even when they do, the manufacturer may not be liable for them. Last August, a Wisconsin jury ruled against the family of Joshua Ramirez, a 21-year- old junior at a bible college who had a lifelong allergy to peanuts and who died in 1996 after eating chocolate chip cookies from the vending machine in his dormitory.

During the trial, the company, Slettin Vending Inc., acknowledged that the cookies contained peanut residue, although the nuts did not appear on the list of ingredients.

Still, only a small amount of peanuts were found in the cookies. It may have been enough to provoke a fatal reaction in Joshua, the company concedes, but it was not sufficient for a jury to deem the product unreasonably dangerous to the average consumer. That is the standard of proof necessary in many product liability cases.

"People are convinced that with allergies you just get itchy, watery eyes," said Dixie G. Ramirez, Joshua's mother. "They do not believe they can be fatal."

After suffering an allergic reaction, consumers can be treated with a shot of epinephrine, and they are often encouraged to carry the drug with them. But there is no medical treatment to prevent allergic reactions to food from occurring. Even patients who receive epinephrine may need additional treatment, so clear and accurate labels may be the only thing standing between a susceptible consumer and a trip to the hospital.

As awareness of the problem grows, manufacturers say they are paying more attention to what goes into their products, but it is often difficult for them to know when ingredients that can provoke a reaction, called allergens, slip into the food chain undetected.

In fact, many of the "hidden" allergens found in the F.D.A. study were not deliberately added, but wound up in sweets because bakers routinely used the same utensils to stir separate mixes, or reused baking sheets without washing them between batches. Slettin, for example, used the same pan liners in its bakery from one day to the next.

In some factories, parchment papers were used as many as 10 times before being replaced, the F.D.A. found. In at least one plant, conveyor belts that coated candies in chocolate were cleaned only once a year, allowing peanut residue to get into products that as far as the manufacturer was concerned, contained nothing risky at all.

Such cross-contamination may seem incidental. But for people with food allergies, ingesting as little as one five-thousandth of a teaspoon of an allergen can induce a fatal reaction within minutes, according to Dr. Hugh A. Sampson, director of Mount Sinai School of Medicine's food allergy institute.

Current F.D.A. rules require companies to list everything that goes into their products, but allow trace amounts of "natural" ingredients to be omitted from labels.

To close those loopholes, a coalition of attorneys general in nine states, from New York to Wyoming, petitioned the F.D.A. last May to issue new regulations. If enacted, the new rules would require manufacturers to warn consumers that their products might contain allergens, even if they are not deliberately added as ingredients.

Turning the petition into new regulations could take years, since manufacturers would have ample opportunity to fight them. For now, the F.D.A. says it is having more success persuading the industry to make voluntary changes. In fact, the agency found that most of the companies it inspected were willing to overhaul their manufacturing.

But the F.D.A. cannot afford to visit all food companies, prompting some lawmakers to push for legislation with stricter standards. Representative Nita M. Lowey, Democrat of New York, has introduced legislation in Congress to require manufacturers to act to prevent unintentional contamination of products, something the law does not now require.

It also calls upon food companies to list allergens by their "common English" names. Even when they do appear on labels, many ordinary allergens are referred to by their formal names, like "casein" for milk or "albumin" for eggs.

"To the lay person, these terms are Greek," said Anne Mu

On Apr 3, 2001

The Goose, Great article. Thanks for posting it. It contains some pretty fighting facts,

On Apr 3, 2001

Boy, if this article doesn't make you want to mill your own wheat, bake your own bread (or cookies!), etc., then I don't know what will. You can be sure I'll be cutting this article out and saving it for my file.

Amy

On Apr 3, 2001

This same or very similar article can be found on:

[url="http://www.msnbc.com/msn/553990.asp"]http://www.msnbc.com/msn/553990.asp[/url]

I just saw it listed on my internet home page.

On Apr 3, 2001

This NY Times article got a mention on national TV this morning, CNN News as well as the news summary on the business news at CNBC (Squack Box).

[This message has been edited by EILEEN (edited April 03, 2001).]

On Apr 3, 2001

[url="http://www.newsnet5.com/sh/health/stories/health-57051620010403-090422.html"]http://www.newsnet5.com/sh/health/stories/health-57051620010403-090422.html[/url]

On Apr 3, 2001

[url="http://my.aol.com/news/news_story.psp?type=1&cat=0100&id=0104030613370906"]http://my.aol.com/news/news_story.psp?type=1&cat=0100&id=0104030613370906[/url]

------------------ Stay Safe,

[email]"Chris@PeanutAllergy.Com"[/email]

On Apr 3, 2001

If someone can find the FDA press release and post it that would be helpful. I checked this morning and it was not on the FDA.com site yet. Maybe request from them where you can get a copy to post here or request a link. Also you may want to mention that they work on getting the Food Recalls and Alerts up on their site in a more timely manner. Often we hear about and send out FDA alerts that they don't even have up on their site yet. Today we find the media out with this FDA press release yet no press release (at least not an easy to locate one) on the FDA site yet.

------------------ Stay Safe,

[email]"Chris@PeanutAllergy.Com"[/email]

[This message has been edited by Chris PeanutAllergy Com (edited April 03, 2001).]

On Apr 3, 2001

The NY Times article is a great one to e-mail out to everyone you know who think you are obsessively insane! I have already had some nice return messages from people I've sent it out to who have "send the light" and realize that I have been acting out of real, not imagined, concern. Their rationale must be "If it's in the NY Times it must be real!"

PS. SEnd the article since you have to pay for their stuff once it gets archived.

On Apr 3, 2001

One reason I posted the text to the article (instead of simply a link) is so that this group would have access to it for posterity.

One other point of interest is that this article appeared prominantly on the front of the business section, not buried in some back pages.

On Apr 3, 2001

This story is really getting some air-time! I heard a promo earlier for the local 5pm news (Tampa FL) "Tonight, bad news for people with food allergies". So, even though the story is bad, it's getting coverage. I just visited the FDA web site, and commented on the article. I, for one, never realized things were quite that bad (1/4th of the labels are inaccurate) It is discouraging, but hopefully now that it's out in the open, things will start to change. Beth

On Apr 3, 2001

I was able to find 3 FDA Press Release related to this, no I haven't read them yet!

U. S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Office of Scientific Analysis and Support January 2001

Food Allergen Partnership

Introduction Inspectional Findings Sample Analysis | Workshops Follow-up Establishment Inspection Summary | Participating Staff

[url="http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/%7Edms/alrgpart.html"]http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/%7Edms/alrgpart.html[/url]

U. S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition January 2001

Food Allergen Monitoring

Raw Ingredients | Processing | Rework Packaging/Labeling | Sanitation Training | References

[url="http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/alrgfact.html"]http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/alrgfact.html[/url]

U. S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition March 14, 2001

"Dear Colleague" Letter About the "Food Allergen Partnership"

[url="http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/%7Edms/alrgltr.html"]http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/%7Edms/alrgltr.html[/url]

[This message has been edited by EILEEN (edited April 03, 2001).]

On Apr 3, 2001

A similar article was on my Yahoo home page this morning. I came in here to post it and saw this one. I emailed it to my family members and my sister emailed me back to say that she had already heard about it on the radio this morning.

On Apr 3, 2001

If we ever needed proof of our cross-contamination concerns, here it is. Just read & share (with skeptics & believers alike) those above listed 3 FDA reports --especially the first one listed, which deals with the WI & MN study.

Chilling.

EB

On Apr 3, 2001

Yes chilling and so timely for us!

There's nothing quite like having a respected publication reinforce what we've been talking about forever. Hope this lights a fire under some that haven't been compelled to join the actions we are undertaking here on this board.

On Apr 3, 2001

This is the food industry's response to these publications,

"Food Industry is 'Leading Efforts to Address Issue of Allergens in Foods,' Says NFPA"

[url="http://library.northernlight.com/FC20010403650000110.html?cb=0&dx=1006&sc=0#doc"]http://library.northernlight.com/FC20010403650000110.html?cb=0&dx=1006&sc=0#doc[/url]

Story Filed: Tuesday, April 03, 2001 4:41 PM EST

WASHINGTON, Apr 3, 2001 /PRNewswire via COMTEX/ -- Commenting on a report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on food industry practices related to allergens in food products, Dr. Rhona Applebaum, Executive Vice President of the National Food Processors Association (NFPA), made the following statement:

"The food industry takes the issue of food allergens very seriously. We have taken the lead in developing manufacturing practices to help avoid the inclusion of any unlabeled allergens in food products. This report will be useful in helping industry to further enhance its efforts to ensure that all potential food allergens are clearly labeled on food packages, and that no inadvertent allergens are contained in food products.

"While only a very small percentage of consumers suffer from serious food allergies, the food industry is committed to ensuring that label statements on products accurately reflect the ingredients in those products. Existing regulations clearly require that all ingredients are listed on food labels, in order to protect those consumers with food allergies.

"NFPA is working with FDA, as well as with consumer groups such as the Food Allergy Network, to ensure that industry practices to avoid the inclusion of inadvertent allergens in food products are truly effective. Our industry also works closely with government and consumer groups on education efforts to provide consumers with the information they need on the important issue of food allergies."

NFPA is the voice of the $460 billion food processing industry on scientific and public policy issues involving food safety, nutrition, technical and regulatory matters and consumer affairs.

For more information on this issue, contact Timothy Willard, NFPA's Vice President of Communications, at 202-637-8060, or visit NFPA's Website at [url="http://www.nfpa-food.org"]http://www.nfpa-food.org[/url] .

SOURCE National Food Processors Association

[This message has been edited by EILEEN (edited April 03, 2001).]

Related