A new federal law requiring sesame to be listed as an allergen on food labels is having unintended consequences: the number of products with the ingredient is increasing.
Food industry experts said the requirements are so stringent that many manufacturers, especially bakers, find it simpler and less expensive to add sesame to a product, and label it, than to try to keep it away from other sesame-infused foods or equipment. .
As a result, a number of companies, including national restaurant chains like Olive Garden, Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A and bread makers that stock supermarket shelves and serve schools, are adding sesame to products that were previously without it. While the practice is legal, consumers and advocates say it violates the spirit of the law, which aims to make food safer for people with allergies.
“It was really exciting as a policy advocate and a mom to get these labels,” said Naomi Seiler, a consultant with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, whose 9-year-old daughter, Zoe, is allergic to sesame. “Instead, companies are intentionally adding the allergen to food.”
The new law, which goes into effect on January 1, requires all foods made and sold in the US to be labeled if they contain sesame, now the nation’s ninth-leading allergen. Sesame can be found in obvious places, like sesame seeds in hamburger buns. But it’s also an ingredient in many foods, from protein bars to ice cream, added to sauces, dips, and salad dressings, and hidden in spices and flavorings.
Advocates for families dealing with allergies lobbied for years to add sesame to the list of top allergens. Congress in 2004 created labeling requirements for eight: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans.
More than 1.6 million people in the US are allergic to sesame, some so severe that they require injections of epinephrine, a medication used to treat life-threatening reactions. Cases of sesame allergies have increased in recent years along with an increasing number of foods containing the ingredient, said Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician and director of the Northwestern University Food Allergy and Asthma Research Center.
“Sesame is in so many things that people don’t really understand,” said Gupta, who called the move to add sesame to products “very disappointing.”
“In families that have a sesame allergy, it’s a real challenge,” he said.
Under the new law, Implemented by the Food and Drug Administration, companies are now required to explicitly label sesame as an ingredient or separately state that a product contains sesame. In the US, ingredients are listed on product packaging in order of quantity. Sesame labeling has been required for years in other places, including Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
If the ingredients do not include sesame, companies must take steps to prevent food from coming into contact with sesame, known as cross-contamination.
Food industry experts said the new requirements are neither simple nor practical.
“It’s like we suddenly asked the bakers to go to the beach and remove all the sand,” said Nathan Mirdamadi, a consultant with Commercial Food Sanitation, which advises the industry on food safety.
Some companies include statements on labels that a food “may contain” a certain product or that the food is “produced in a facility” that also uses certain allergens. However, such claims are voluntary, not required, according to the FDA, and do not exempt the company from requirements to prevent cross-contamination.
Instead, some companies have taken a different approach. Olive Garden officials said that starting this week, the chain will add “a minimal amount of sesame flour” to the company’s famous breadsticks “due to the potential for cross-contamination in the bakery.”
Chick-fil-A has changed its white bagel and multigrain brioche buns to include sesame, while Wendy’s said the company has added sesame to its French toast sticks and buns.
United States Bakery, which operates Franz Family Bakeries in California and the Northwest, notified customers in March that it would add a small amount of sesame flour to all hamburger and hot dog buns and buns “to mitigate the risk of any adverse reaction.” to sesame products.”
Although such actions do not violate the law, the FDA “does not support them,” the agency said in a statement.
“It would make it more difficult for customers with sesame allergies to find foods that are safe to eat,” the statement said.
Some large companies previously added other allergens to products and updated their labels. In 2016, Kellogg’s added trace amounts of peanut flour to some cookies and crackers, prompting protests.
That’s frustrating and scary for parents like Kristy Fitzgerald of Crookston, Minnesota. Last spring, he learned that Pan-O-Gold Baking Co., which supplies breads to schools, health centers and supermarkets throughout the Midwest, was adding small amounts of sesame to its products, including those served at the his daughter’s school. Meanwhile, six-year-old Audrey has overcome her sesame allergy.
Bob Huebner, Pan-O-Gold’s food safety and quality assurance manager, told Fitzgerald in a series of emails that the company was forced to add sesame to the product and label.
“The unfortunate reality is that our equipment and bakeries are not set up for the allergen cleanings that would be necessary to prevent sesame cross-contamination and it was not an option for us,” Huebner wrote in an email to Fitzgerald. Huebner responded to an email from the AP, but did not respond to questions about the company’s practices.
Fitzgerald started an online petition protesting the decision to add sesame.
“At some point, someone is going to feed an allergic child sesame,” Fitzgerald said. “It makes me think that the laws need to change to show that this is not an acceptable practice.”
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