By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter TUESDAY, Sept. 16 (HealthDay News) -- Responding to concerns that food labels aren't doing enough to alert consumers to the presence of allergens, or that the labels are just plain confusing, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is hosting a public hearing Tuesday on what it can do to improve things.
"If you go down the candy aisle and you pick up any number of candy bars or other confectionery products, you are going to see a variety of these 'may contain'-type labels: 'may contain peanuts,' 'processed on shared equipment,' 'manufactured in a facility that processes peanuts or milk or whatever it is,'" said Anne Munoz Furlong, founder of The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network in Fairfax, Va. "Nobody knows what it means. Some [labels] are completely ridiculous, and the result is that consumers are confused and are forced to have very limited food choices or take risks."
"We would like to see all of the food industry adopt one set of criteria for using these descriptions and a limited number of those descriptions," Furlong added. "There are about 30 different ways to say 'may contain' on the marketplace. That's way too many."
One result of the current confusion, Furlong said, is that teenagers, who are the most at-risk group for fatal food-allergy reactions, report they are taking risks as a result of unclear labeling.
The hearings are part of a "long-term strategy" on the part of the FDA to help manufacturers upgrade their labeling practices, making them both clear and truthful.
Food allergies affect about 2 percent of adults and 5 percent of infants and young children in the United States. The allergies can range from the merely irritating to the life-threatening. Some 30,000 consumers go to the emergency room each year to get treatment for food allergies and 150 Americans die.
There is no cure for food allergies, so consumers have to protect themselves by avoiding, or at least trying to avoid, food items that will cause a reaction.
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA) required new labels on packaged foods containing "major food allergens," which were defined as milk, eggs, fish, Crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts and soybeans, or any other ingredient that contains protein derived from one of these foods or food groups.
Among other things, labels now had to include plain-English descriptions of ingredients and possible allergens.
But some experts worry that the new law may have overburdened the information landscape. They suspect the current hearings may be trying to rectify that.
"I think they may be trying to find a medium in how much do they have to explain and in how much detail," said Dr. Jonathan Field, emeritus director of the pediatric allergy and asthma clinic at New York University/Bellevue Medical Center in New York City. "There's a problem on both sides in terms of over-labeling or under-labeling foods. I think they have to be specific."
For example, manufacturers may need to use statistics (one part per million, for instance) to more precisely identify what "trace amount" means.
During the hearings, the FDA will explore whether current advisory labeling such as "may contain" or "produced on shared equipment that processes [allergen]" goes largely ignored by consumers and what might constitute better labeling.
The FDA will also investigate the best way to word advisory statements.
But total clarity in the area of food labeling may just not be possible.
"There's always going to be a very gray area with this, no matter what they do to change it," Field said. "You can't with every product and every production facility (especially if equipment is used for more than one product) be 100 percent accurate. It's variable. Some patients are exquisitely sensitive to trace amounts, and others have milder symptoms. There has to be clear-cut communication on the child's or adult's allergy and what is the likelihood of a reaction. Some of that is not going to be cleared up with a simple change in the label."