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.
"If it says, 'does contain,' that means something," Daines told ABCNews.com. "If it says, 'may contain,' it's just pushing the liability onto the patient."
Improving Food Labels
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies plague between 4 percent and 8 percent of children nationwide. And though the CDC said it is still trying to understand why, it appears that food allergies are on the rise.
To prevent visits to the emergency room, the FDA is eager to do more to ensure that food manufacturers don't mislead consumers. The FDA has been collecting comments from the public during the last few months and will continue to solicit feedback until mid-January 2009.
Burks said he hopes that the meeting today will be a solid step in giving the industry firm guidelines on how to label foods so that parents can easily and accurately decifer new labels.
Daines said more stringent standards for labeling would be a good start.
"It should very clearly state on the front of the package whether it contains the common food allergens," Daines said. "Anything that would state clearly whether it contains those or not would be a big step in the right direction."
Fleischer said clearer labels would work wonders for those with allergies.
"Hopefully, it will reduce parent's anxiety and hopefully let them focus on the foods and food products they really need to avoid," he said.
Preventing an Allergic Reaction
To ensure that foods are safe, Dr. Harvey Leo, assistant research scientist at the Center for Managing Chronic Disease, suggested that in addition to reading labels, parents should try to have their kids test out new foods at home. He also advised parents to be vigilant in looking out for symptoms in order to pinpoint precisely which food sparked an allergic reaction.
While eating out, customers are also advised to stay in close communication with servers, managers and chefs, to guarantee their precise needs are met.
To prevent allergic reactions, the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network works with the National Restaurant Association and has developed a training program for restaurants. The National Restaurant Association is also training managers and employees this month as part of a September education campaign.