Letter from Senator Dean Heller Regarding Sesame Labeling

I know, another post about sesame!  I have some research still pending about the epinephrine expense issues I’ve written about here previously but with an influx of new cases and adding a partner at the firm (to find out more about them, check out our redesigned website!) and putting in time with Mary and Laurel at the Allergy Law Project, I haven’t been able to get much else done.

At any rate, I reached out recently to the Senators here in Nevada, Harry Reid and Dean Heller, via their respective website contact forms to let them know how important sesame labeling is to our family.  Of course, there is no pending legislation, but as you can see from my last post, there are ways that the legislative branch can voice support on an issue even if it isn’t technically before them for debate or decision.

If you’re reaching out to influencers regarding sesame labeling feel free to use some of these talking points:

  • While some allergens have to be disclosed, a major allergen does not have to be: sesame
  • Sesame can disguise itself as “natural flavoring” or “spices” on labels and put people very much at risk
  • Sesame can also be called “tahini” or “gingelly” on labels if it appears at all
  • Those with sesame allergy who are exposed can experience potentially fatal anaphylaxis
  • Robert Wood, director of pediatric allergy and immunology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine notes sesame allergies are “now clearly one of the six or seven most common food allergies in the US”
  • The mandatory labeling for food allergens looks at the “top 8” in the US, so if FALCPA was being written today, sesame would almost certainly be included in mandatory labeling
  • FDA-2014-P-2035 filed by CSPI and including prominent allergists and concerned families asks that the FDA require labeling of sesame using regulatory powers under 21 USC (s) 343(x)

My message to my state’s Senators talked about the letter from Senators Blumenthal, Markey, and Murphy to the FDA.  I received a letter in the mail from Senator Dean Heller’s office that I thought was pretty cool and I wanted to share it here since I so appreciated it:

Letter from Nevada Senator Heller
Letter from Nevada Senator Heller

Ms. Homa Woodrum
3470 E. Russell Rd Ste 212A
Las Vegas, NV 89120-2201

Dear Ms. Woodrum:

Thank you for contacting me to share your support for labeling sesame in food products. I appreciate your thoughts on this issue and welcome the opportunity to respond.

As you know, nearly 500,000 Americans are estimated to be allergic to sesame seeds. There are currently no federal laws or regulations mandating the label of sesame in food products, and I understand your desire to see this ingredient labeled on food packaging.

Generally, I am supportive of measures that help provide consumers with more information so they can make better choices for their own lives. Although no legislation has been introduced regarding mandatory sesame labeling, rest assured I will keep your support for this measure in mind should related legislation come before the Senate for debate or a vote.

Again, thank you for contacting me. Please continue keeping me informed of issues that matter to you.

Sincerely,

DEAN HELLER
U.S. Senator

____

I have a call this week with representatives at AAFA/KFA to hopefully get a statement from them regarding this issue – the support of the food allergy community is so crucial.  We can’t let CSPI go it alone!

Other posts about sesame labeling on this site:

Sesame labeling related articles elsewhere – commenting on these sites may help show support if you have the time:

Sesame Labeling Update – Senators Support CSPI’s Labeling Efforts

I just received the following via CSPI – we met with Senator Murphy and staff from Senator Blumenthal’s office and Senator Markey’s office in May when I was in Washington, D.C.!   Since then, I’ve been on the lookout for problematic labels so I will share one of my finds here before pasting the release I received via CSPI.

Example of labeling as
Example of labeling as “tahini” instead of the allergen “sesame”

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and U.S. Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take swift action to require labeling of products that contain sesame or sesame seeds. Currently, sesame is not required to be labeled as an allergen on food products, yet sesame allergies are growing in prevalence. The senators heard directly about the dangers and challenges individuals with sesame allergies face from not having accurate information about what is in their food. The senators wrote a letter to FDA Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff requesting that the agency require that sesame – one of the most common allergens in the United States – be listed specifically by name on ingredient lists and that sesame be included in inspections for cross-contact. 

“Given the severity and growing prevalence of sesame allergies, we respectfully ask the FDA to move expeditiously under its current authority to require sesame labeling and inspection of sesame cross-contact to help protect the health and safety of our constituents,” wrote the senators. “Without required uniform labeling of the presence of sesame, consumers with this serious allergy have no way of protecting themselves or their family members from its potentially life-threatening consequences. As Congress recognized when it passed FALCPA, accurate and comprehensive allergen labeling is essential.”

“Currently, the inclusion of sesame as a major allergen in processed food is not explicitly regulated by  FALCPA, making it difficult for those with sesame allergy to determine which products may contain this allergen,”said James R. Baker, Jr., MD, CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), an organization representing the 15 million Americans with food allergies.  “With a significant documented increase in the prevalence of sesame allergy, which can be life-threatening, we are pleased to see Senator Murphy bring attention to the need and means for improving labeling to help families managing food allergies keep themselves and their loved ones safe.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest Chief Regulatory Affairs Attorney Laura MacCleery said, “Several hundred thousand Americans are allergic to sesame, and their allergy is no less serious and no less life-threatening than that of those allergic to peanuts, shellfish, or other common allergens. The Food and Drug Administration could easily protect these consumers by including sesame among the so-called Big 8 food allergens for purposes of labeling and education.  We’re grateful to Senator Murphy, Senator Blumenthal, Senator Markey, and others who similarly wish the FDA would follow the lead of Canada, the European Union, Australia, and other nations that require labeling of sesame and sesame-based ingredients.”

The full text of the letter is below:

The Honorable Stephen Ostroff

Acting Commissioner

Food and Drug Administration

10903 New Hampshire Avenue

Silver Spring, MD 20993

Dear Commissioner Ostroff:

We write to urge the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take swift action to require sesame seeds and sesame products to be labeled and regulated in a manner similar to the rules that apply to the eight current labeled major allergens.

Sesame is now one of the most prevalent, and most dangerous, food allergies in the United States.  When Congress passed the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) in 2004 to require the labeling and regulation of allergens then considered the “Big 8” (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy), it was thought that these categories covered around 90% of all allergies in the United States. However, if FALCPA were enacted today, sesame would be included on this list. Allergists consider sesame to be an emerging allergy concern, affecting an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 people in the United States.  Robert Wood, the director of the division of pediatric allergy and immunology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, notes that sesame allergies “have probably increased more than any other type of food allergy over the past 10 to 20 years” and are “now clearly one of the six or seven most common food allergies in the U.S.”  In addition to its mounting prevalence, sesame poses a particular danger due to the severity of the allergy: for some, sesame exposure can trigger potentially-fatal anaphylaxis.

A recent Citizen Petition—FDA-2014-P-2035, filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a number of prominent allergists and concerned parents—outlines the need for action in this area. We support the petition’s request that the FDA require sesame to be listed specifically by name on ingredient lists of foods and be made part of inspections for cross-contact, to better protect our many constituents who suffer from such allergies.

FDA has the authority to regulate sesame in the same manner as other major allergens under FALCPA.  Under 21 U.S.C. § 343(x), the Secretary may promulgate regulations requiring disclosure of allergens other than the allergens listed in the original statute, and has already done so in the case of the coloring carmine/cochineal. This provision also gives the FDA the authority to determine the manner and extent of such disclosure.

As Congress recognized when it passed FALCPA, accurate and comprehensive allergen labeling is essential to enable allergy sufferers to avoid specific ingredients and potentially fatal reactions.  This need is especially critical for sesame, which is often listed under unfamiliar names, like “tahini” and “gingelly,” and is sometimes not identified at all as a component of “spices” or “natural flavors.”  Without required uniform labeling of the presence of sesame, consumers with sesame allergies, and the families of children with this serious allergy, have no way of knowing whether sesame is present in the foods they are eating, and cannot protect themselves or their family members from its potentially life-threatening consequences.

FALCPA was enacted to improve allergen labeling so that consumers can identify the presence of an ingredient they must avoid.  Given the severity and growing prevalence of sesame allergies, we respectfully ask the FDA to move expeditiously under its current authority to require sesame labeling and inspection of sesame cross-contact to help protect the health and safety of our constituents.

Sincerely,

Christopher S. Murphy

United States Senator

Richard Blumenthal

United States Senator

Edward J. Markey

United States Senator

____

Update: 6/26 – here are links to coverage about the above:

http://thehill.com/regulation/246026-senate-dems-urge-fda-to-make-labeling-of-sesame-products-mandatory

http://www.murphy.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/murphy-blumenthal-call-on-fda-to-label-and-regulate-all-sesame-products

snacksafely.com/2015/06/senate-dems-to-fda-label-sesame-as-an-allergen/