Undeclared allergens have been driving recent increases in food recalls, which some say contributes to the trend of consumers ignoring recall notices. A year ago, a national recall consultant found millennials are the “least compliant consumer age group when it comes to responding to recalls.”   

But earlier this week, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced plans that could result in sesame being added to the list of “major food allergens,” an action that would almost certainly increase the number of food recalls. Currently, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans are the eight “major food allergens” that must be specifically declared on food labels.

When Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act in 2004, the eight “major food allergens” had been found to be responsible for 90 percent of the serious food allergic reactions in the United States.

“Before this legislation was enacted,” Gottlieb said, “the FDA had found that 25 percent of sampled foods containing ingredients derived from peanuts or eggs failed to list these allergens on the label. Now, the situation has vastly improved. The current law imposes strict requirements that foods containing one of these eight major allergens be clearly marked for the presence of these allergens, and we work closely with companies on quickly recalling such products from the market if they are mislabeled.”

Bills in the U.S. House and Senate, referred to the Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2018 in the House, seek to make sesame the ninth major food allergen under federal law. The House version is sponsored by Rep. Frank Pallone, D-NJ, and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT, who introduced it on April 2. The Senate bill, introduced April 11, is sponsored by. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, and Sen. Edward Markey, D-MA. Neither the House nor Senate version has advanced. The bills would require sesame to be declared on labels under the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA).

Putting sesame on the allergen labeling list is based partly on research by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Based on a 2018 household survey, CSPI found 300,000 Americans are allergic to sesame. It reported sesame ranks as No. 9 after the Top 8 major food allergies.

Sesame’s current listing as a mere ingredient is confusing because it can be listed as unspecified spice, natural flavor, tahini, benne, various other names, and as unspecified oil, flour, paste and powder.

Sesame is currently on the major allergen lists in the European Union, Canada, and Australia. But the ingredient hit the headlines after a baguette sandwich made on-site at a Pret location was purchased by a 15-year old girl at London’s Heathrow Airport on July 17, 2016. She had a “catastrophic anaphylactic reaction from which she could not be saved.” The teenager died less than 12 hours after eating part of the sandwich.

“Unfortunately, we’re beginning to see evidence that sesame allergies may be a growing concern in the U.S. A handful of studies, for example, suggest that the prevalence of sesame allergies in the U.S. is more than 0.1 percent, on par with allergies to soy and fish,” the FDA Commissioner explained.

Gottlieb said the FDA is advancing a new effort for the consideration of labeling requirements for sesame to help protect people who have sesame allergies. As a first step, the agency has issued a request for information, to gather information about the prevalence and severity of sesame allergies in the U.S., as well as the prevalence of sesame-containing foods sold in this country. 

The FDA plans to use the information it collects to help it respond to a petition for listing sesame as a major allergen.

Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), a non-profit group that works to raise awareness about the dangers of food allergies, supports the addition of sesame to the list of known allergens that must be declared on food labels. The organization’s website says one in 1,000 people in the United States is allergic to sesame. Overall, FARE’s research shows 15 million Americans have food allergies, with 1 in every 13 children allergic to at least one food.

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