May is Food Allergy Awareness Month. Food allergies affect over 30 million Americans, including 1 in 12 children.
Whenever someone with a food allergy eats even a small amount of food that they’re allergic to, their body will develop an allergic reaction. Food allergy reactions can range from mild to severe, and can sometimes lead to a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis.
In 2021, the United States government recognized the challenges of living with food allergies by passing the FASTER Act.Today, we’ll cover how this law will improve the safety and quality of life for the millions of Americans who have food allergies.
Whenever someone with a food allergy eats even a small amount of food that they’re allergic to, their body will develop an allergic reaction. Food allergy reactions can range from mild to severe, and can sometimes be life-threatening.
Since food allergy families must avoid the foods that can put themselves and their loved ones at risk, food allergies can have an enormous impact on quality of life. And when someone has a food allergy that isn’t covered under labeling laws, quality of life is impacted even more significantly, because it’s harder to read labels and avoid accidental allergen exposure.
In 2021, the United States government recognized these challenges of living with food allergies in a significant way. The FASTER Act was signed into law, to vastly improve safety and quality of life for the millions of Americans who have food allergies and their families. Today, we’ll cover the groundbreaking changes that the FASTER Act has put into place.
What is the FASTER Act?
The FASTER Act is the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research Act. Representative Doris Matsui of California first introduced the FASTER Act to the United States Congress in 2019, where it received significant bipartisan support. In April of 2021, President Joe Biden signed the FASTER Act into law.
What changes has the FASTER Act put into place?
The FASTER Act has activated several changes that will benefit the food allergy community, including:
- Recognizing sesame as the ninth top allergen
- Requiring foods with sesame to be clearly labeled, just like foods with the other eight top allergens are
- Making it much easier to add future allergens to the current top nine list – and pass labeling regulations covering these allergens – if allergies to those foods are common enough
- Accelerating the pace of research concerning food allergies
- Requiring a thorough report on the latest promising food allergy research
Sesame is now the ninth top allergen under the FASTER Act – what does that mean?
Prior to the FASTER Act becoming law, U.S. federal law recognized the eight top allergens affecting Americans as major allergens: cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, wheat, finned fish and shellfish.
These allergens must be clearly labeled on food packaging – in plain language – under a federal law that went into effect in 2006. That way, people with the most common food allergies can more easily avoid the foods that cause them to develop an allergic reaction.
But although sesame is also a very common allergen – the ninth-most common allergen in the U.S. – it wasn’t recognized as a major allergen under that 2006 federal law. That meant sesame didn’t have to be clearly labeled on food packaging. In fact, manufacturers didn’t have to list sesame as an ingredient at all!
Historically, sesame has been hidden in many foods, including under vague ingredient names like “natural flavors” and “spices.” So, it has been difficult for the 1.6 million people with a sesame allergy, and their families, to avoid the foods that can cause a sesame allergy reaction. And as mentioned above, any food allergy reaction could become severe or even life-threatening.
As many as 38% of people with sesame allergies reported experiencing at least one severe sesame allergy reaction, with around one in three saying that they used an EpiPen to treat at least one allergic reaction. Many of those allergic reactions have likely occurred due to accidental exposure – in other words, when someone couldn’t clearly identify that a food contained sesame based on its label.
Now, thanks to 2021’s FASTER Act, sesame is considered the ninth major allergen under federal law. All foods containing sesame must have sesame clearly labeled as an ingredient, in plain language, by 2023. This means it will soon be much easier for people with sesame allergies to stay safe, and for sesame allergy families to protect their loved ones from the foods that could cause an allergic reaction.
“With President Biden signing the FASTER Act into law, no longer will I have to live in fear that my children could accidentally eat something that would kill them simply because it was not included on a food label.” – Talia Day, sesame allergy mom and advocate for the FASTER Act
Learn more about what the FASTER Act means for sesame allergy families in this FARE webinar:
What are the new sesame labeling requirements?
The FASTER Act requires that all foods containing sesame be clearly labeled by January 1, 2023.
- Foods that contain sesame must have the warning “Contains: Sesame” boldly highlighted on the label.
- Or, if they don’t have the bold “Contains” warning, they must have sesame listed as an ingredient in plain language.
- The sesame ingredient must be easy to find and read.
- This means sesame can’t be hidden with a vague labeling like “spices” or “natural flavors.”
- Rather, it must be listed as “sesame” or a form of sesame (like “sesame seeds” or “sesame oil”) so it’s easy to tell that sesame is in a food.
These new “contains” labeling requirements mean that, under federal law, sesame has to be clearly labeled just like the other eight top allergens: milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, finned fish, and shellfish.
Important Note: Since the new labeling law won’t fully take effect until January 2023, many sesame-containing foods still don’t have the new, clear sesame labeling yet. Continue to stay vigilant if you or your child has a sesame allergy – read labels very carefully!
How does the FASTER Act’s new process for adding top allergens work?
The FASTER Act didn’t just add sesame to the major allergens list. Thanks to the FASTER Act, it will also be much easier to add other common allergens to this list – and require them to be clearly labeled like sesame – if allergies to these foods are common enough.
Under the FASTER Act, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can add a food to the current list of top food allergens at any time – and require clear warning labels for that food – if it finds that the food causes a significant amount of people to develop severe allergic reactions.
The FDA doesn't have to wait for a new law to be passed before adding a new food to the list, like it had to wait for the FASTER Act to become law to add sesame.
So, if the FDA wishes, it can quickly study allergens like mustard, celery, and a legume called lupin, and possibly add them to the major allergen list if findings warrant it. These top allergens are covered under other countries’ allergen labeling laws, as they’re deemed common enough causes of severe allergic reactions in those countries. But they aren’t yet covered under U.S. labeling laws.
How will the FASTER Act accelerate food allergy research?
The FASTER Act will encourage and promote research on food allergies because it requires the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to complete thorough reports on the latest groundbreaking food allergy research. The first report must be completed by late 2022, with regular reports required after that.
Reports will cover government-connected research on food allergy prevalence, severity, treatment, management, how food allergies develop, and other areas related to food allergies. The first report will also involve recommended strategies for identifying and adding new major allergens to the list covered under labeling laws.
Where can I find out more about the FASTER Act?
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