Food allergies have seemed like a moving target over the past decade or so.
For years, the FDA has had a law requiring that foods containing any of eight major allergens contain a label to that effect. But there aren’t only eight allergens, and last week, President Joe Biden signed into law an act to add a ninth to this list: sesame.
That initial food allergen law, passed in 2004, noted that roughly 90 percent of allergies were caused by eight foods: tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, fish, wheat, soybeans, eggs and milk. Any food that contains any of those ingredients must disclose that somewhere on the label. But sesame, which is found in all kinds of foods, was not covered by that initial rule, and, in fact, according to the FDA, it sometimes never even showed up in the “ingredients” section of the label.
Sesame would, says the FDA, sometimes be covered by “flavors” or “spices” in a nutrition label, or be covered by a different name, such as tahini or zhi ma jiang (both of which are sesame pastes). Further, sesame is a major component of many different cuisines, ranging from Lebanon and Israel to Mexico and Korea. As foods from those countries have become more popular in the United States, attestations of sesame allergies have risen, too: The FDA now believes that somewhere north of 0.1 percent of Americans have a sesame allergy, which is in the same range as other members of those eight major allergens.
On Friday, Biden signed into law the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act, which comes with a host of new allergen protections. For one thing, sesame will be on the list of allergens required to be labeled on packaging. But there are also outreach programs within the bill. Those are important, writes Laura Reiley at the Washington Post, because allergy-fighting prevention is far behind where it needs to be. Owing, writes Reiley, to a 2000 study that suggested keeping kids away from allergens, many kids never build up tolerance through low-level exposure. And low-level exposure is now believed to be a valuable way to minimize the dangers of allergies later in life.
The FASTER Act also includes a regulatory framework for declaring other foods—those not on the list already—as major allergens. There wasn’t really a system like this beforehand, but it’s not as though those nine are the only significant food allergens out there, and it’s vital to have a way to more quickly research and determine whether there should be labels for a given food. (Other countries, notes Eric Athas at the New York Times, have more extensive lists.)
This particular ruling on sesame, despite the act’s name, won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2023.