The Allergy Aware

Specificity in Labels

Courtney Mulherin looks up as her mother, Kim, as they have lunch around the table at their home in Leesburg. Eleven year old Courtney has a severe allergy to anything with milk or milk protein. StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Wed Dec 21 15:35:02 2005
Courtney Mulherin looks up as her mother, Kim, as they have lunch around the table at their home in Leesburg. Eleven year old Courtney has a severe allergy to anything with milk or milk protein. StaffPhoto imported to Merlin on Wed Dec 21 15:35:02 2005 (Rich Lipski - Twp)
Wednesday, January 4, 2006

When Courtney Mulherin of Leesburg was a toddler, one of her parents' worst nightmares came true. Courtney, who has a milk allergy, had a severe allergic reaction at her day-care center after eating some food she was served that contained dairy, said her mother, Kim. The staff didn't realize that the "casein" on the label was derived from milk.

Soon, kids with serious allergies like Courtney, now 11, may be spared some of the dangers of inadvertently eating something that can make them sick.

That's because as of Jan. 1, newly printed labels have to say in clear, understandable language whether a product contains one of eight food allergen groups.

So if "casein" is included, "milk" would be listed after it. That should take some of the guesswork out of avoiding dangerous reactions by the 2 percent of adults and 5 percent of children in the United States who, like Courtney, suffer from food allergies.

The new Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act allows grocery stores to sell off products that were labeled before Jan. 1, but early in the new year some changes will be noticeable on the grocery shelves:

  • Common allergens labeled. If there are any egg, peanut, nut, fish, shellfish, wheat or soy in a product, the label will have to say so.
  • Ingredients specified. The type of tree nut (such as almonds, pecans, walnuts), fish (bass, flounder, cod) or shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp) will have to be listed.
  • No more catchall phrases. Goodbye to non-descriptive words such as "artificial" or "natural" flavors, colors or additives. Labels with those ingredients also will have to specify which allergens they contain.
  • The exceptions. The law applies only to food regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Meat and poultry are the domain of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it plans to issue similar rules sometime this year. In the meantime, the USDA is encouraging meat and poultry companies to comply voluntarily, and some are doing so.
  • As for food sold in restaurants, don't expect to see allergen labeling. The same goes for fresh fruits and vegetables.

  • Gluten rules coming. The estimated 3 million people who can't tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, will have their turn soon. The FDA is working on a regulation that would allow the voluntary use of the term "gluten-free" by 2008 if a product met certain standards. In the meantime, companies, using their own definition of gluten-free, are coming out with more such products.
  • -- Carole Sugarman


    © 2006 The Washington Post Company