Saturday, February 2, 2013

How Much of a Food Allergen is Too Much?

There's a new survey the FARE people would like you to take. It's about food allergy thresholds: the minimum amount of a allergenic protein that should be allowed in a manufactured food without cautionary or overt labeling.

Most of the questions are designed to gauge general literacy about labeling laws. However, there was a question at the very end that gave me pause:
"Would you purchase a food that contains the allergen(s) you are avoiding if you could be assured that the amount of that allergen present in the food is only capable of triggering a mild allergic reaction, such as tingly lips or an itchy throat?"
The wording of the question carries a good bit of emotional baggage. Many of us know the stories of kids who died after determining a food was safe because they touched it to their tongue and didn't feel the tingle. It's a terrible and very dangerous way to gauge the allergic content of a food.

So why was it asked in this way? I have a (cynical) theory about it.

Across the table from FARE in these hearings will be the food industry. Anything that adds expense or time to the manufacturing process is going to make these people very, very nervous. If the law suddenly requires them to guarantee a maximum amount of allergen, it introduces a whole new level of product liability. After all, if they say a food contains <1 mg of a protein and a family of a child who has suffered a reaction can prove otherwise, they're suddenly on the hook legally. (If you remember the story of Joshua Ramirez, you know there are basically no legal protections for allergic consumers at all right now, even when foods are contaminated and unlabeled.)

So what's the poor, put-upon food industry to do to stop this from happening? "Hey! Let's just prove that food-allergic individuals don't really want/won't really use this kind of labeling anyway!" 

It's probably true that the vast majority of allergic people will use this new labeling to eliminate foods from their diet (including foods they or their child have successfully been eating). Most people have no clue what their or their child's threshold is for an allergen. Plus, we know thresholds can change with time, and with other environmental factors like pollen load, puberty, exercise or illness. Given all that, it can seem like a crap shoot to determine a "safe" level of an allergen.

The problem is that the food industry may use "no safe level" type comments we make in this survey and elsewhere to argue that the food-allergy community is unreasonably fearful and that labeling foods more clearly would actually cause harm: harm to consumers (eliminating foods they're currently eating successfully) and harm to the industry (lost business from fearful allergic consumers, lost money/time to implement the new rules). If they can show people are unlikely to use the new information and that there's actual harm in providing it, it will be easier to kill.

My guess is that initial discussions have already occurred between FARE and the food manufacturer lobbyists, and that food lobbyists may have influenced the (emotionally loaded) wording of the survey. From what I've seen in on-line discussions about the survey, some people are leaving outraged comments...which will likely delight the food lobbyists, as it's "evidence" the new rules are really not needed or wanted by food-allergic individuals.

All I'm asking is that you not overreact as you take the survey. Consider whether the knowledge about the quantifiable allergenic content of a food (imperfect though it may be) would be helpful. Don't get caught up in the emotions of the badly-worded question, but read it at face value: would you purchase a food...if you could be assured that the amount of that allergen present in the food is only capable of triggering a mild allergic reaction. Of course you would. I would too...if I were totally certain the reaction would be limited.

This legislation has the potential to help everyone in the food community. Quantifying allergen levels will suddenly expose the habitually-contaminated foods our children have been eating. Whether you choose to continue with those foods, or eliminate them, is up to you. More important, though, quantifying allergen levels gives us legal protections we don't have today. Don't lose sight of that objective because of a badly-worded question.

Any other theories on why this survey question was so weird? Add them to the comments please! 


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