If you are a member of the food allergy community, you no doubt know about the FDA’s bombshell that landed on the Friday evening of Memorial Day weekend. The guidance they issued allows manufacturers to substitute hard-to-find ingredients due to the pandemic without reflecting the change on the label in certain circumstances.
In one fell swoop, the Food and Drug Administration injected additional ambiguity into an already lacking labeling regime, now forcing consumers with food allergies to scramble to ensure the products they have relied on for years remain safe for their consumption.
To bring clarity to the issue, Lisa Gable, CEO of Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), convened an online discussion featuring the heads of regulatory affairs for major food industry groups. As the former president of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, Ms Gable created and led a coalition of food and beverage industry corporations and public health and government agencies giving her impressive bona fides to assemble and lead such a discussion.
Participating in the webinar were Dr Donna Garren, EVP for Science and Policy for the American Frozen Food Institute; Dr Deborah Miller, SVP for Science and Regulatory Affairs for the National Confectioners Association; Lee Sanders, SVP for Government Relations and Public Affairs for the American Bakers Association, and Joe Scimeca, SVP for Regulatory and Scientific Affairs for the International Dairy Food Association.
We suggest you view the webinar in its entirety. See it here:
As the conversation progressed, it became clear the panel members were instrumental in forming the policy behind the FDA’s guidance. Throughout the webinar, they each voiced their deep concern for the food allergy community and stressed the overriding need for “transparency”, using the term over and over again. Unfortunately, their actions speak otherwise.
Taking a step back, the FDA’s guidance made no provisions for manufacturers to warn consumers that a substitution introducing a new ingredient has occurred, presumably because printing new packaging is expensive and entails a long lead time. This could have easily been remedied by mandating that a sticker be placed on such items to warn the consumer. Stickers are fast to produce, can be added to existing labels without affecting the manufacturing process, and would be effective in warning the consumer of a change. But adding stickers also results in additional costs to the manufacturer, eating into their profits.
As the audience was invited to submit questions during the webinar, I asked was why such stickers weren’t mandated. One answer was that “stickers fall off”, which is disingenuous as many food product labels are applied as stickers to begin with. Instead, Ms Sanders suggested that shelf signage and website disclosures were the go-to alternatives, although neither is mandated by the very policy these industry representatives helped craft.
The panel continually offered two solutions to address the concerns of the food allergy community: visit the manufacturer’s website or call their consumer information number. But why didn’t the guidance they helped craft mandate companies include such disclosures on their websites and inform their customer service staff of such changes?
The implication here is that to be safe, consumers concerned with allergens need to visit the website or call the manufacturer every time before purchasing a product, and even then there is no guarantee the information they receive will be current and complete.
This solution shifts the entire burden of allergen safety to the consumer, despite the industry’s ostensible commitment to “transparency”.
We at SnackSafely.com call “foul” and urge you to take two important actions:
- Contact the FDA and voice your concerns over the new policy. You can do so by clicking here;
- Contact the Food and Beverage Issue Alliance and register your dismay with their constituent manufacturers. You can do so by clicking here.
There is simply no excuse for the industry eroding trust in the label even further, especially during this pandemic when finding allergen-safe foods is already difficult. They share responsibility with FDA for abandoning the food allergy community during a time when we rely on them the most.