What are our responsibilities regarding food allergies?

Knowing what food allergies are and the responsibilities of manufacturers, retailers and individuals can help prevent potentially fatal consequences.

Peanuts are one of the eight most common allergens identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Peanuts are one of the eight most common allergens identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Chances are you know someone who has a food allergy. Food allergies affect between four and eight percent of children and only about two percent of adults. The term “allergy” can often be used incorrectly, as some people have what is considered an “intolerance” but refer to it as an allergy. The main difference is that an allergic reaction involves an immune response. This is when the body’s immune system reacts, sometimes extremely, to an offending allergen – which is a protein in the food. Protein, a macronutrient that provides us calories, is what we commonly think of when the word “protein” is used. However, protein is also a part of every cell in our body, as well as the structure of cells found in the food we eat. While the most common allergens, the offending substance we are reacting to, happen to be what we consider a “high protein food,” they can also be a “low-protein” food as well, like fruit. 

Typical symptoms of an allergy versus an intolerance

Allergy:

    • Abdominal pain
    • Vomiting/diarrhea
    • Rash/hives
    • Tingling or swelling in the facial area
    • Difficulty breathing

Intolerance:

    • Abdominal pain
    • Vomiting/diarrhea

Common allergens

The Food and Drug Administration has identified the eight most common allergens, although there are over 160 foods that cause allergies. These eight foods account for over 90 percent of all food allergies:

  • Milk
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Shellfish (e.g. crab, lobster, shrimp)
  • Fish (e.g. bass, flounder, cod)
  • Tree nuts (e.g. pecans, almonds, walnuts)
  • Peanuts
  • Eggs

Manufacturer responsibility

It is a law that food manufacturers label their products if it contains any part of one of these eight common allergens. Manufacturers must also clearly and honestly label the ingredients in their product. This means that if one of the above eight allergens are used in a product, then it must be clearly stated in the ingredient list, for example “whey (milk)” or it must be listed in a “contains” statement next to the ingredient list, such as “contains milk.” 

This law does not require manufacturer’s to label products when cross-contact could have occurred. Cross-contact is when a food is contaminated by the use of the same equipment that contained an allergen. However, many manufacturers choose to state this on their label – such as “produced in a facility that also uses peanuts.” 

Retailer responsibility

About 50 percent of fatal allergic reactions occur outside of the home, in other words – many reactions are occurring in food services venues such as restaurants. It is a responsibility of the food industry to practice safe food handling to limit the occurrence of food allergies as well as foodborne illness. It is now a law in Michigan, as well as many other states, that food service operators receive food allergy training.  Some large companies have their own training program, or there are other options such as ServSafe®, which is a nationally recognized training program. If operations do not have proof of food allergy training, they may be subject to citations/fines.

Personal responsibility

While there could be many people who refer to their food intolerance as an allergy and maybe many more who due to their dislike of a particular food refer to it as an allergy. Regardless of how credible you may view someone’s claim to have a food allergy, we all have a responsibility to honor it by providing allergen-free food. This includes preparing meals and dishes in an environment that will not contaminate allergen-free food.

Many schools or public institutions have become “peanut-free” to avoid potentially causing a reaction that could have fatal consequences. Because the incidence of food allergies is higher in children and because they have limited knowledge, authority or willpower, it is important to check for food allergies before providing food to children. 

Michigan State University Extension offers ServSafe® food safety training for those working in the food service industry. For more information, contact your local MSU Extension office.

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