Food manufacturers beware—in response to new data on food allergens, state and federal agencies are taking a closer look at food labeling requirements. In particular, the rise in the identification of sesame allergies has led to FDA review and new labeling requirements in Illinois. Food manufacturers and related businesses may need to make adjustments to respond to these changes.
Common Food Allergens and US Labeling Requirements
At the moment, only eight foods are subject to special allergen labeling requirements in the US. The “Big 8” food allergens—milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy—have been subject to nationwide labeling requirements since the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) took effect in 2006.
The act requires these food allergens to be listed on food labels by their common name. If another word is used or the ingredient contains one of these allergens, the allergen must be listed in parentheses afterward, as in “flour” (wheat). If manufacturing introduces a risk of cross-contamination with one of these allergens, labels must indicate this as well. While many prepackaged foods also include a phrase such as “contains milk” after the ingredient list, this isn’t required by law.
Sesame: Another Major Allergen
Until a few year ago, it was generally believed that the “Big 8” were the source of 90% of a food-based allergies. In recent years, however, another food has been repeatedly cited as a major food allergen: sesame. Just this month, for example, a study by Northwestern University researchers published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that roughly a million people in the US have sesame allergies (0.49% of the population). This makes sesame the ninth most common food allergen, right behind the top eight that require labeling. Our neighbors to the north in Canada have already put into place requirements for sesame allergen labeling, and so has the EU. (The EU actually has a list of 14 food allergens required for labeling versus the eight required in the US, including celery, mustard, added sulfites and lupin.)
Illinois’s Sesame Labeling Amendment
Illinois is one of the first states to respond to this new information about sesame with legislation, amending the Illinois Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The state now considers packaged foods containing sesame—but not labeled as such—to be “misbranded,” a Class C misdemeanor. In Illinois, Class C misdemeanors can result in up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,500.
Although the amendment was introduced in response to the rising identification of widespread sesame allergies, note that the amendment doesn’t actually mention allergens and doesn’t require packages to list sesame as an allergen—sesame just has to be labeled as present. This is because allergen labels are designated by federal law with the FALCPA. Any changes to allergen labeling—such as the addition of sesame—would have to go through the FALCPA.
While changes at the state level don’t by themselves change federal policy on allergen labeling, they can be influential. If more and more states follow Illinois’s lead, the likelihood increases that the FALCPA may be amended to include allergens like sesame. Nationwide sesame allergen labeling is already on the radar of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). At the end of last year, the FDA put out a request for comments on the topic of mandated labeling for sesame as an allergen. To put it simply, the movement behind sesame allergen labeling currently has a lot of momentum, making more labeling changes a strong possibility in the near future.
Sesame Labeling and Your Business
Food manufacturing businesses in Illinois—or those that distribute packaged food in the state—should take immediate action to avoid penalties. Manufacturers should ensure sesame is specifically included in ingredient labels, not listed under another name or product (such as tahini) or simply included under a broad category such as “natural flavors.”
Food manufacturers not directly affected by Illinois’s amendment may still want to begin working on identifying sources of sesame in their products. In addition to Illinois, common trade partners like Canada and the EU already require sesame labeling, so adapting to these requirements now would make a smoother transition in the event of expansion—or new legislation.
With business laws and requirements constantly changing, a little help can make a big difference. At Northwest, we can help you maintain your business in a number of ways. From registered agent service to annual report compliance, we got your back.