Legislation would require readable ingredients lists, allergen info

A bill that would require food manufacturers to print ingredients lists in an easy-to-read format is being stymied by the industry, even though a new survey shows the vast majority of Americans would prefer clearer labels. The Food Allergen Consumer Protection Act (S. 2499/H.R. 4704), sponsored by Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), would require manufacturers to use plain English words to identify the most common food allergens. The bill also would close a loophole that allows common allergens to go undisclosed in spices, colorings, or flavorings and would require the Centers for Disease Control to track food-allergen-related deaths.

Manufacturers of packaged foods are required to print nutrition information in an easy-to-read, standardized format. No such requirements exist for ingredients lists, which are sometimes almost unreadable, due to small, all-capital letters, and with poor contrast. Also under current law, arcane words like “casein” or “semolina” can be used in ingredients lists with no indication that they are derived from “milk” or “wheat.”

In a recent Internet survey conducted for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) by TNS Intersearch, 90 percent of respondents preferred labels designed under the proposed Kennedy/Lowey legislation than labels permitted under current regulations (see “Label 1” and “Label 2”, under Related Links). That survey of 1,000 people is nationally representative of Internet-using households.

“Easy-to-read Nutrition Facts labels have made it easy for Americans to find out how much fat or fiber is in their foods, but one really has to squint to find out the ingredients,” CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson said. “For those who suffer food allergies, this can truly be a life-or-death issue.”

Senate Democrats and Republicans have been working on compromise language to move the legislation out of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pension committee, which Senator Kennedy chairs. Even though Democrats have offered significant concessions, key Republicans on the committee have sided with the food industry, which generally opposes any labeling changes, according to CSPI.

“Last year, the food industry promised to disclose these allergens in plain English on a voluntary basis, but many companies are still not doing that,” Jacobson said.

Approximately four million Americans, including up to six percent of children, are allergic to one type of food or another. Eight ingredients—peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, soybeans, and wheat—account for most allergic reactions. About 29,000 people are rushed to hospital emergency rooms each year because of allergic reactions to foods, and some 150 people die each year as a result of food allergies.

Supporters of the legislation include the Food Allergy Initiative, Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, and other groups.