Yes, you read that correctly. It’s hard to believe—after all, 32 million Americans have food allergies (almost 10% of us!)—but it’s happening.
Before we explore why, let’s do a quick regulatory recap.
For nearly all matters concerning food safety, including allergen testing, FDA-regulated food manufacturers follow the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
FSMA introduced significant reforms to the nation’s food safety laws. For the first time, food manufacturers were required to develop and maintain a written “food safety plan.” FSMA also gave the FDA discretionary authority to approve or reject these plans, giving auditors considerable interpretive power over which food safety plans would pass muster.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) is an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. FALCPA mandates that nationally-distributed packaged foods containing any of the “top eight” major food allergens—fish, shellfish, wheat, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, and eggs—must be identified in plain language (easily readable/understandable) and listed in either the ingredients section OR in a “contains statement” (usually following the ingredient list). At the time of the FALCPA allergen labeling passage, these eight foods accounted for 90% of food allergies and serious allergic reactions in the U.S.
FASTER ACT (2021)
On April 23, 2021, the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act was signed into law, adding sesame to the list of top allergens (now nine!) that must be declared on federally-regulated packaged products in the U.S. The FASTER Act goes into effect on January 1, 2023.
Now that we’re up to speed on food allergen laws, let’s talk about why some common allergens are being added to our foods—sometimes with little warning.
Last year, a well-known candy manufacturer, Pearson’s, began listing peanuts, almonds, and pecans on the ingredient label in their mint patties. While they highlighted that the new recipe offered “thicker” and “fresher” mints, they did not highlight the nut additions on their packaging. The food allergy community caught this oversight and raised alarm.
In March 2016, Kellogg’s announced they would begin adding peanut flour to several Keebler and Austin-brand sandwich crackers—and boy was there backlash. Among many concerns voiced, the most prominent was the risk that long-time purchasers might not re-check the label. Hostess likewise added peanut flour to some of their Ho Ho’s and Suzy Q’s cakes around this same time.
There has been much speculation as to why food manufacturers are adding common allergens to products whose recipes, in many cases, haven’t changed in decades.
Some speculate food manufacturers may be trying to skirt regulatory requirements to avoid compliance costs. Others offer manufacturers may be adding nuts and other allergens to increase the amount of protein in these foods, in an effort to make them healthier.
According to Dr. Bert Popping, food safety expert, “Food allergen management at the manufacturing level can be difficult—especially when you have different food products sharing the same line. In some cases, even after thorough cleaning, there can be incidental allergen contamination at various levels. Since legislation varies widely, and many existing regulations are discretionary, some manufacturers might be inclined to add the allergenic ingredient to their product to eliminate ambiguity; others may add advisory warnings like ‘may contain’ statements.”
I’ll end here on a personal note.
For YEARS, one of my favorite health food stores carried chocolate-covered almonds that my entire family loved. I was ecstatic when we discovered them because they checked all of our boxes: no dairy or gluten for mom, no peanuts or other tree nuts for sister (she can safely eat almonds and is encouraged to regularly by her allergist), and no high fructose corn syrup or ingredients I can’t pronounce (I’m a bit of a health nut 😉).
I’m embarrassed to admit I bought these almost weekly, so I didn’t necessarily check the label each time. On one particular trip, I noticed a tiny callout on the front of the package that stated NEW RECIPE. The food allergy mom in me (naturally) grabbed the package and flipped it over immediately. I was crestfallen to find that, not only had milk been added to the recipe, but so had corn syrup. WHY… 😔
I found myself disappointed for two reasons. First, because these almonds would no longer work for my family. And second, a brand we trusted might be making a change in the hopes of lowering production costs.
Sadly, I’ve heard many stories like this—close calls if you will—where a trusted brand changes the ingredients (and not always for the betterment of our health).
Hopefully, the backlash that ensued from some of these incidents underscores the importance of properly communicating ingredient changes to the packaging and label, and serves as a good reminder to always check the label. Even if they’re your tried-and-true fave snack.
— Meg and the Allergy Amulet Team