Food Labeling Modernization Act Introduced in Congress

A bill named the “Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2015” was simultaneously introduced last week into the House as HR4061 and Senate as S2301. The legislation, sponsored by Rep Frank Pallone Jr (D-NJ) and Sen Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), is intended to “amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to strengthen requirements related to nutrient information on food labels, and for other purposes.”

One of the “other purposes” is to amend how allergens are treated with respect to labeling requirements. There are two specific changes that will help families better understand the allergen content of foods they buy.

First and foremost, the bill adds sesame to the list of the FALCPA Top 8 allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, and crustacean shellfish. This implies that sesame – when an ingredient of a product – will need to be disclosed in plain English and may not be hidden in ambiguous terms like “spices” or “natural flavoring”.

Second, the bill mandates that for non-packaged foods, retailers must provide signage with the allergen disclosures that would normally be mandated on the package.

Taken together, these mandates are of enormous importance to the food allergy community. We at SnackSafely.com see anecdotal evidence that sesame allergy is skyrocketing amongst our readers based on the questions and feedback we receive, and better disclosure of the allergen content of foods is always welcome (though we continually caution our readers with severe food allergy to avoid unpackaged foods.)

As with most legislation, this bill is not a panacea for the allergic community. There will be a three-year period for compliance with the terms once the bill is passed into law. Also, the bill does not address the need for the disclosure of the potential for cross-contact with allergens, such as when milk is processed in the same manufacturing line as a product that does not contain milk as an ingredient. We remind our readers that warnings like “May contain traces of peanuts” and “Manufactured in a plant that also processed wheat” are entirely voluntary.

Reminder: You can see the ingredient content and potential for cross-contact with sesame and 10 other allergens for products from over 50 partners in Allergence, our interactive allergen screening service.

The bill also addresses a number of other labeling concerns, especially with regard to nutritional claims. It:

  • Directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to:
    • simplify the nutritional information on the label,
    • clarify the meaning of terms like “whole wheat”, “made with whole grain”, and “multigrain”,
    • make mandatory the disclosure of added artificial or natural coloring, sweetener, or artificial or natural flavoring, and
    • take into account reports from the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences when deciding which additional disclosures to mandate when considering “at-risk” consumers;
  • Directs the adoption of standards around claims that a food affects or maintains health, and gives the Secretary of HHS the authority to compel manufacturers to supply supporting information of such claims within a 90 days window;
  • Adds trans-fats to the list of fats that may disqualify cholesterol claims;
  • Directs the Secretary of HHS to clarify the terms “natural” and “healthy” within 2 years of enactment;
  • Sets a baseline standard that at least half of the grains contained in a product be whole grain and that the food contain 10% or less of the daily limit of sugar for a product to be considered “healthy”;
  • Mandates that foods containing 10mg or more of caffeine disclose this fact in the ingredient statement;
  • Requires the importer of foods to supply documentation of all labeling requirements and sets a $10,000 fine for any importer of manufacturer that violates any of the requirements. [See this story for a recent incident where the mislabeling of an imported product resulted in the death of a child.]

We applaud the efforts of the legislators sponsoring this bill, as enactment will arm allergic consumers with more information they need to keep their families safe.

We urge them to consider mandating the disclosure of the potential for cross-contact in future legislation because families have a right to know about all the allergens that might be contained in their food.

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