We have 8 planets and 8 top allergens – that’s about to change! Well, we’re hoping it will change and a fantastic organization called CSPI (the Center for Science in the Public Interest – a Washington, DC based non-profit health advocacy group) has taken a major lead in doing so. No, Pluto isn’t coming back (at the moment) but CSPI and many other folks would love to see sesame added to FDA labeling requirements for allergens.
I’ve discussed labeling legalities on my blog in the past as well as specific examples of labeling woes, but to those that don’t live with a sesame allergy this may not seem like the exciting step it really is. If we open the door to the “top 8” notion expanding, what else are we capable of changing?
My dear friend Jessica Almy is not only the founder and editor at Vegbooks.org, a site focusing on kid movies and literature reviews with a compassionate (vegan and vegetarian) lens, she is Senior Nutrition Policy Counsel with CSPI. Jessica is one of those people I say I want to be like when I grow up, she has even changed the way I think about food and I thought I was pretty entrenched after 6 years of being a food allergy mama. Two of the campaigns she has worked on look at the use of icons that appeal to children to sell junk foods/candy (ex: Hello Kitty on just about everything, How to Train Your Dragon with candy “advergames”). These are pressing issues – just yesterday my husband e-mailed me this article from the New York Times about the ubiquity of Disney’s Frozen to sell products to children.
In January 2013 Jessica connected me with Janna dePorter, a research associate at CSPI, about CSPI’s work on a petition for the FDA to get sesame labeling going. I was able to reach out to my own networks so that Janna could speak with other great individuals that wrangle sesame allergies in their life.
I’m used to keeping mum on things but here we are in November and I get to finally share that yesterday CSPI’s petition went up! Read the press release here, and download the pdf of the actual petition here.
From the petition (internal citations omitted):
The sesame seed (Sesamum indicum) is an oilseed crop and edible seed that is used in many food and consumer products. It is used in an increasing number of foods and might be listed in the ingredient list under an unfamiliar name, such as benne, benne seed, benniseed, gingelly, gingelly oil, gingelly seeds, gomasio, halvah, seed paste, seed oil, sesamol, sesamolina, sesamum indicum, sim sim, tahini, and teel or til.
This is part of the background research that Janna and others were involved with when they reached out to food allergy families – where and how does sesame, one of the top 10 allergens labeled for in Canada already, hide and endanger an at-risk population? Sesame also hides under terms like “spices” or “natural flavorings” in food.
My statement in support of the petition is featured on page 13 as pictured below, I’ll also paste it in for easier reading but it gives a better idea of why I think this is such an important step:
September 21, 2014
Las Vegas, Nevada
My daughter was diagnosed with multiple food allergies shortly after turning 1. She’d had reactions before the confirmation of her condition but it took time to isolate her triggers. She was initially allergic to peanut, tree nut, oat, sesame, corn, milk, egg, wheat, soy, and grape. This made cooking and shopping a challenge and it still is a challenge even though she did narrow her list after outgrowing a few allergies to peanut, tree nut, oat, and sesame. Having a “mainstream” allergy mixed with a “non-top-8” allergy makes a life of constant vigilance that much more challenging. You could say “just avoid the allergens” but when companies don’t have to disclose the presence of sesame or use the commonly understood name of sesame, things get tricky. 5+ years into our allergy journey I know how to pick up a product and hunt for the clues that tell me about the presence of something like sesame but even my food allergy mama sleuthing skills can’t see into the mind of a manufacturer that just lists “spices” as an ingredient. “Tahini,” or ground sesame paste, is another nebulous ingredient that I try to work on with my budding reader but which inhibits the ability of others to assist in keeping her safe. Which is to say that I may know that tahini equals sesame but a teacher or other parent may not know that. It really boils down to disclosure for our family – sesame is a fairly major allergen not being labeled for. No one is asking companies to stop using sesame in their products, just to let the consumer know that it is there. The precedent set by adding to labeling requirements will open the door for more transparency and safety for consumers in the United States. How do I teach my child to be responsible about her allergies if companies that make food products aren’t required to tell her the ingredients of their “spices” or that tahini lurks within. I distinctly remember buying tomato sauce and seeing that one variety had sesame. I was shocked and wondered if the absence of sesame on the other brands’ labels meant it was present and they didn’t feel obligated to tell anyone. The broader issue is not whether I’m going to walk out of the store with tomato sauce, it is that if we’re consenting to have food production so removed from the end user, we should be heard when we ask for assistance knowing whether we can safely provide a food product to our families.
What can you do?
Be sure to share the press release with others to raise awareness of non top 8 allergens. You can even share your own story of dealing with sesame or another allergen that isn’t mandated for labeling. More disclosure benefits all of us and may put companies on notice that they should take a step further than what is legally mandated already by FALCPA.
My daughter is reading labels as her reading skills improve, it is exciting and scary for me at the same time because she believes the things she reads (this goes back to the other work CSPI does about children and marketing) and relies on them. She does know that the next step is calling the company or emailing them to find out about other allergens and manufacturing practices and that will still be our norm, but maybe things can change.
Keep sharing also your own stories about living with food allergies with people in your community. Just as there are “teaching moments” when you spend time with a child, there are teachable moments in everyday conversation with others. We may each only be one person but you never know how far a message can spread!