There’s nothing easy about living with food allergies. Having one or multiple food allergies can make grocery shopping, grab-n-go snacks, and casual lunch dates tricky if not confusing and frustrating — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when, according to IFIC consumer data, “21% [of survey respondents] said that they were worried about their ability to provide enough food for their family.”
Under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), the U.S. food regulatory system ensures that our food supply is safe from microbial, chemical and other potential risks. But what about allergen risk? How do you know if an allergen is in your favorite foods? Thanks to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), we can all rest a little easier and have confidence in our food choices, even with food allergies.
What is FALCPA?
FALCPA is the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act. Congress passed FALCPA in 2006 as a way for consumers to easily recognize the presence of allergens in food. It makes grocery shopping a little less stressful in many ways because consumers can see which foods contain allergens and which do not. The law requires food companies to list—directly on food packages—each of the eight major food allergens they contain. This means that you can find any food containing milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans clearly marked on packages.
According to the FDA, “More than 160 foods have been identified to cause food allergies in sensitive individuals. However, the eight major food allergens identified by FALCPA account for over 90 percent of all documented food allergies in the U.S. and represent the foods most likely to result in severe or life-threatening reactions.”
What about sesame? Sesame labeling is not required under FALCPA, even though more and more Americans are developing sesame allergies. The National Institutes of Health estimate that a whopping 1.1 million Americans are allergic to sesame. Certain groups, such as Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), advocate for FALCPA to include sesame. Be sure to check back with IFIC for up-to-date information on sesame labeling—there could be some big changes in the near future. In the meantime, FALCPA and ingredients lists help us identify food that may contain potential allergens, including:
- Soy sauce, which contains wheat and soy
- Baked goods, which often contain peanuts
- Breaded foods, which are often battered using wheat and milk
Under FALCPA, packaged foods must display allergen information in two ways: in the ingredients list or at the end of the ingredients list. Food companies are also required to list the common names or sources from which major allergens are derived. For food companies that choose to include the major food allergens at the end of their ingredients lists, the allergen source must follow the word “contains.”
FALCPA not only requires that food companies list each major allergen; it also requires that food companies list the allergen types. For example, companies must specify the type of tree nut—almond, pecan, walnut, etc.—and the kind of fish—bass, flounder, cod, etc.—that is in a product. To keep us aware of foods that may have been exposed to allergens, some companies opt to include “may contain” statements.
Food companies use “may contain” statements to warn customers that a food product may have been exposed to an allergen. These statements are known as precautionary labels, and they indicate that cross-contact could have occurred. For example, food companies can’t be sure that a mixer used to stir peanut butter cookie batter won’t transfer some peanut butter to a batch of sugar cookies. To ensure that the public knows that cross-contact is possible, companies can include a “may contain” statement—but this statement isn’t required by law.
Public health impact
Life without FALCPA would look much different. It would be almost impossible to determine if food products contained major food allergens. Without this knowledge, people who have food allergies could consume allergen-containing foods and risk life-threatening allergic reactions. Others might choose to seriously limit the number of pre-prepared foods they consume. These populations might only eat foods prepared in their homes from raw ingredients, placing serious limitations on the foods they could eat. FALCPA, in many ways, is a public health measure. It helps us avoid severe allergic reactions and other allergy symptoms, including rash, eczema and hives, while affording us the convenience of consuming food products and meals prepared outside the home.
FALCPA makes life easier
The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act is a protective measure that has positively impacted millions of Americans. FALCPA makes it easier for food shoppers to identify major allergens because it requires food companies to include essential allergen information on food packages. People with food allergies can thus avoid products that might trigger an allergic reaction. The next time you’re grocery shopping, pay attention to ingredient labels—doing so can help keep you or a loved one safe.
This article was written by Casey Terrell, MPH, RD.
“Common Allergens,” Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), 2021.
Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2021.
“Sesame Allergy 101,” Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), 2021.
“Food Allergy Facts: What You Know Could Save a Life,” FoodInsight.org, 2019.
“NIH Researchers Estimate 17% of Food-Allergic Children Have Sesame Allergy,” National Institutes of Health, 2019
“Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 Questions and Answers,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2006.