FDA to Take a Close Look at Food Labels

Critics say "may contain" labels don't really protect people with allergies.

ByABC News
September 15, 2008, 8:05 PM

Sept. 16, 2008— -- At grocery stories nationwide, careful shoppers do their best to read labels and avoid buying products that could trigger their allergies. But many people say labels that highlight what foods "may contain" as opposed to what they certainly contain are too ambiguous to successfully prevent potentially deadly reactions.

"I think it's reasonable to be able to tell people whether or not something's in the food you're trying to sell them," said Dr. Michael Daines, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

In response to allergy fears, the Food and Drug Administration has scheduled a public hearing today to examine the effectiveness of food labels that highlight that products "may contain" allergens like peanuts and egg.

With more than 12 million Americans living with food allergies, and 30,000 emergency room visits every year triggered by allergic reactions, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, many people say food labels intended to help consumers navigate the system are sometimes not clear enough.

"The majority of families that I see, that are relatively educated about food allergies, have difficulty with the labeling system right now," said Dr. Wesley Burks, chief of the division of pediatric allergy and immunology at Duke University Medical Center.

"The food companies need guidelines about what to label and how to label that are helpful to the consumer," he said.

Still, doctors acknowledge that food labeling has come a long way. In recent years, new requirements have called on manufacturers to make public additional information about allergens on packaged foods, including the common name of the allergen rather than less consumer-friendly language.

"It really holds them accountable for saying exactly what that risk is," said Dr. David Fleischer, assistant professor of pediatrics at National Jewish Medical and Research Center. "You used to have to look for 15, 20 different words that mean milk."

"At least for the eight major foods in the U.S., they are labeled clearly," Burks said.

Still, some worry the law doesn't make clear what to do when foods like peanuts might be made in the same place as other products, prompting fears of cross-contamination. If a food is manufactured in an enormous factory, a product that a consumer is severely allergic to could be handled in the same building not far away from that person's favorite treat.

According to Daines, the current system of placing advisory labels on products just in case that happens allows "very risk-averse" companies to put a label on any food that has a chance of containing an allergen, thereby avoiding a lawsuit.