If you’re among the 32 million people in the U.S. with food allergies, you’ve spent your life studying ingredient lists and reading every food label. Unfortunately, that’s about to get a little trickier.
The FDA recently announced that it’s relaxing some food labeling requirements because of the COVID-19 pandemic. With supply chains disrupted, they want to make it easier for manufacturers who can’t find the ingredients they need to make substitutions--without changing the ingredient list or food label.
Rest assured that manufacturers can’t suddenly introduce a Top 8 allergen (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans) without updating labeling. The change can’t significantly alter the nutrition, and has to be minor (two percent or less by weight).
For instance, the FDA says companies can switch out oils (like canola instead of sunflower), leave out a certain veggie in a mixed-vegetable product, or swap a spice if the ingredient list simply states “spices” without changing the ingredient list.
But if you’re someone with an allergy or intolerance outside those Top 8, this is probably making you nervous--and for good reason. Allergies to sesame, buckwheat, and mustard also affect people and are considered major allergens in other parts of the world. Yet, some of these ingredients may end up being used as swaps: The FDA’s guidelines merely say that food manufacturers “should avoid” substitutions that could cause safety issues. That’s “dangerously vague,” as David Bloom, CEO of SnackSafely.com points out, and sounds more like a suggestion than a requirement.
Another potential risk: “Highly-refined” oils. Because they’ve heavily processed and stripped of protein, the FDA doesn’t consider them allergenic--even though some people with allergies still react to them and avoid products made with them. With the new guidance, a company could substitute highly-refined peanut oil for canola oil but not show that change on the ingredient list.
Even more worrisome: The FDA says these relaxed rules could stay in place beyond the pandemic.
So what can you do? Food allergy advocates are calling on the FDA to require food companies to reveal product changes on their website, social media channels, or even stickers on the package. But in the meantime, Bloom says to stick to the brands you already know and trust and to contact manufacturers to make sure they haven’t made formulation changes. FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) is encouraging members of the food allergy community to make their voice heard by leaving the FDA a comment about the new guidance.