Food allergy is a serious medical condition, impacting 15 million Americans. For these people, strict avoidance of a problem food is the only way to prevent a serious reaction. The need for constant vigilance is life-altering. What might otherwise be a quick trip to the grocery store calls for extra time to carefully read the label of each pantry item, and while so many enjoy the simple pleasure of dining out, dining out isn’t so simple when even trace amounts of an allergen can result in a trip to the emergency room.

Cause for concern

The Food Allergen Labeling & Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires that food labels show in plain English when a major food allergen or any ingredient that contains protein from a major food allergen is added as an ingredient to a product.

"The U.S. Food and Drug Administration consider milk, wheat, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean shellfish and soy major food allergens."

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) consider the following foods major food allergens: milk, wheat, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, crustacean shellfish and soy. These foods account for the vast majority of food allergy reactions in the United States.

Although FALCPA has made label reading easier for consumers, it’s important to note that ingredients and manufacturing practices can change at any time, and reading every food label every time should be a standard practice. It’s also important to know the use of advisory labeling (i.e., precautionary statements such as ‘may contain,’ ‘processed in a facility that also processes,’ or ‘made on equipment with’) is voluntary and optional for manufacturers. There are no laws governing or requiring these statements, so they may or may not indicate if a product contains a specific allergen.

Taking action

Although there are no federal laws requiring ingredient declarations on restaurant menus, certain protections through the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) extend to diners with food allergies. In addition, laws are in place in at least three states to improve food allergy awareness at restaurants, with model bills being presented in other states. Provisions include allergen awareness in staff training, developing standard operating procedures for handling diners with food allergies, displays on menus or at the point of service instructing patrons to inform servers of a food allergy, and having available at all times a member of staff who has taken and passed an allergen awareness training course.