The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

To comply with a new sesame allergy law, some businesses add — sesame

8 min

Four-year-old Mia McDermott just kept getting sick. Throughout January, she had persistent headaches, vomited frequently and became dehydrated, and every time she got better, she’d get worse again. Even after eating one of her favorite foods, a Wendy’s cheeseburger, Mia became violently ill, said her mother, Jessica McDermott.

McDermott was baffled: Her little girl was allergic to sesame, but she was eating only foods she had always eaten safely.

That same month, Emily Tibbs’s 2-year-old son suddenly developed a rash on his face, a cough and stomach pain that made him cry after eating Dave’s Killer white bread, Tibbs said. The Nashville mom was bewildered: Her toddler was allergic to sesame, but she hadn’t fed him anything other than the foods he normally ate.

Scouring the labels of what their children had eaten, both mothers were horrified to discover that sesame was now listed as an ingredient in the cheeseburger, the bread and other baked products that had previously been sesame-free. “I’d been unknowingly poisoning [Mia] for several weeks,” said McDermott, who lives in Philadelphia.

What happened? On Jan. 1, a law intended to safeguard the more than 1.5 million Americans with a sesame allergy — including the McDermott and Tibbs children (and, full disclosure, my son as well) — took effect. The law mandates, among other things, careful cleaning to prevent cross-contact between food products with and without sesame.

In a twist, however, many food companies have chosen to add small amounts of sesame flour to products that were previously sesame-free, instead of conducting the careful cleaning required for foods without sesame.

The result? Foods that sesame-allergic kids and adults have eaten safely for years are now potentially life-threatening.

The Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research (Faster) Act mandates careful cleaning of manufacturing equipment to ensure foods are sesame-free or clear labeling of all foods with sesame — many foods previously were labeled only as containing tahini, which is made from ground sesame, for instance.

Similar laws have protected millions of Americans allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish for nearly two decades. Like those foods, sesame can provoke allergic reactions from mild to life-threatening.

Why would foodmakers add an allergen?

Wendy’s and Dave’s Killer Bread did not respond to requests for comment on the incidents above. Wendy’s had previously released a statement that said: “We take food safety and allergen matters very seriously. … On our current national menu in the U.S., our premium and value buns contain sesame flour as an ingredient.”

Some in the food industry say adding sesame flour is the safest path forward. They contend that they can’t sufficiently clean their equipment to guarantee it is free of sesame, as the Faster Act requires. And under federal labeling rules, they can’t state that their products contain sesame unless the items actually contain it — so they’re adding sesame and labeling it.

The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates most food labeling, “does not support” adding sesame as a strategy to comply with the law. “Labeling is not to be used instead of current good manufacturing practices with regard to allergens,” an FDA spokesperson said.

Food safety advocates are more blunt: Adding sesame “has the potential to completely undermine the food allergy protections of the last 20 years — not just for sesame, but for all allergens,” said Sarah Sorscher, director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an independent consumer advocacy organization based in D.C. She said she worries other manufacturers will try the same with other allergens.

Because companies are adding sesame in the form of flour, not seeds, the added allergen is invisible to the eye, making it more dangerous — especially when food is served in group settings, like schools and summer camps, where labels aren’t nearby, advocates say.

“A child accustomed to safely eating a burger for lunch at school last year will not know about the change and will be poisoned as a result,” said Jason Linde, senior vice president of government and community affairs at Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), an advocacy organization that lobbied for passage of the Faster Act.

Parents say it has become difficult to find bread or buns their sesame-allergic children can eat since the Faster Act’s passage.

“It’s almost impossible,” said Toni Brubaker-Flood, a mom in Wolverine Lake, Mich., whose 17-year-old son is allergic to sesame. She said her son used to be able to eat the store-brand buns from Kroger, Walmart and Target, as well as Ball Park buns, but now they all list sesame as an ingredient.

Jennifer Grant of Chatham, N.J., said her 19-year-old daughter called her in tears from her college dining hall, distraught because nearly every food — sandwiches, burgers, breadsticks, pizza — suddenly had a sign on it reading “contains sesame.” The young woman, who attends college in North Carolina, doesn’t have a car and relies on the dining hall for her meals.

Adding sesame is not something that advocates of the Faster Act anticipated.

“There was no hint that this would happen, because companies had not done this with the other eight allergens [specified in federal law], and this isn’t happening in other countries that label for sesame,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

The food industry responds

In statements to consumers and the media, several companies said they have added sesame flour to some foods to protect allergic consumers.

Chick-fil-A’s bread suppliers “are unable to guarantee with 100% certainty that their production lines for our white bun and multigrain brioche bun are sesame-free … even after intensified cleaning,” reads an email to consumers from the fast-food chain.

“Food safety and quality are our top priority,” a Chick-fil-A spokesperson wrote in response to The Washington Post’s request for comment, noting that as of Dec. 12, the chain’s white buns and multigrain brioche buns contained sesame flour.

Olive Garden also confirmed its addition of sesame flour. “Our suppliers have added a minimal amount of sesame flour (less than 2%) to our breadsticks due to the potential for cross-contamination at the bakery,” Lauren Bowes, a spokesperson for Olive Garden, said in an email.

The American Bakers Association did not respond to questions about adding sesame flour. Instead, it provided a statement from Lee Sanders, its senior vice president of government relations and public affairs: “The wholesale baking sector prioritizes consumer safety. Baking companies are working with their customers, including restaurants, to transparently disclose any allergen labeling changes to help ensure consumer safety.”

Walmart, Target, Wonder, Nature’s Own, Sara Lee, Ball Park, Thomas’, Franz, Jack in the Box, Sonic, Pan-O-Gold and Culver’s now show sesame as a listed ingredient on the labels or allergen menus of some or all of their previously plain bread and/or bun products. Their press contacts either declined or did not respond to requests for comment. A representative for Aunt Millie’s confirmed to The Post that the company is adding sesame flour to previously plain bread and buns because it could not guarantee a sesame-free product via cleaning. And Wendy’s media relations confirmed that sesame is an ingredient in its premium and value buns.

Kroger and Wegmans also show sesame as a listed ingredient on some or all of their previously plain store-brand bread and/or bun products. Kroger media relations director Erin Rolfes said, “We label all buns as having possible allergens due to the potential for cross-contact.” Wegmans media relations said that “concerns of potential cross-contact … leads to the inability to guarantee a truly sesame-free product.”

Yet other major U.S. companies are finding ways to follow the intent of the new law. Sandwich restaurant Jimmy John’s has removed sesame from its wheat bread, making its menu sesame-free. And McDonald’s said it will not add sesame to foods that did not previously contain it. America’s largest restaurant chain has worked with its suppliers to follow the new law’s cleaning protocols and does not plan to add sesame flour to any buns, a McDonald’s spokesman said. Burgers historically served on sesame-seed buns will continue to be served that way, and plain buns will remain sesame-free.

Meanwhile, parents are frustrated. Rather than helping their kids, the Faster Act — or the industry response to it — has ended up adding to the long list of foods their children can’t eat safely.

Manufacturers “could have done the right thing, and they didn’t,” said Brubaker-Flood, the mom from Michigan. “They had ample time to come up with new procedures to prevent cross-contamination, and instead they took the crazy route and deliberately added an allergen instead.”

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