WASHINGTON - A new unpublished government report reveals that numerous processed foods are contaminated with peanut or egg allergens, but their labeling does not disclose the presence of those substances. Sensitive individuals could suffer life-threatening reactions if they consume those tiny amounts of egg or peanut protein. The study is discussed in the April issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter, published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and in today’s New York Times.

Twenty-one of 85 food manufacturers inspected by U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and state investigators in Minnesota and Wisconsin in 1999 and 2000 were producing foods containing peanut or egg allergens without declaring the presence of those allergens on their labels, a new FDA study has found. Of 118 samples of baked goods, candy, and ice cream that inspectors suspected were contaminated, 23 contained enough peanut or egg proteins to cause an allergic reaction.

“Careful manufacturing and accurate labeling of foods are a life-and-death matter to many of the one million or more Americans who suffer from peanut allergies,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at CSPI. “This is a case where an accurate label can save a life.”

“This FDA study is very disturbing,” says Hugh Sampson, director of the Jaffe Food Allergy Institute at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “People’s lives depend on food companies accurately labeling the presence of allergens in their foods.”

Sampson and his colleagues recently estimated that 150 Americans die each year from food allergies, usually from unknowingly eating foods with peanuts or other nuts in them.

The number of foods recalled each year by U.S. manufacturers because they contain allergens not listed on their labels rose sharply during the 1990s. In 1996, then-FDA Commissioner David Kessler urged companies to step up their efforts to prevent cross-contamination of their products with food allergens and to ensure the accuracy of ingredient lists.

“Unfortunately, three recent surveys show that some food companies across the country are still failing to comply with the FDA’s request,” CSPI charged in a letter to Acting Principal Deputy Commissioner Bernard Schwetz.

In its survey of 85 small, medium, and large food plants, FDA and state inspectors found that only half the firms were checking to see that the ingredients they listed on their products’ labels matched the ingredients actually used to manufacture the foods. And half of the plants that didn’t check were marketing foods that contained allergens not disclosed on the labels.

Some companies, for instance, were modifying their recipes without changing the lists of ingredients, while others were using the same equipment to make foods with peanuts or eggs that they were using to make foods that were supposed to be allergen-free.

“In all, about 25 percent of the firms had some products that were coming off the line with undeclared allergens in them,” Kenneth Falci, who helped conduct the FDA study, told Nutrition Action. “The goal should be that no foods come off the line that way.” Investigators did not test for other common allergens, such as wheat, milk, or soy.

Recent studies indicate that the problem of cross-contamination is national in scope. In 1999, the Oregon Department of Agriculture tested 62 chocolate candies manufactured in that state that were not supposed to contain peanuts. Fourteen, or 23 percent, tested positive for significant levels of peanut allergens. State inspectors found that companies were not separating the production runs of their different candies or cleaning their machinery properly.

In 2000, researchers at the University of Nebraska found that of 19 cereals, confections, snack foods, and other foods that did not list peanuts as an ingredient or indicate that the products may contain peanuts, four (21 percent) contained detectable levels of peanut allergens.

“Consumers need more accurate labeling of ingredients in processed foods, an 800 telephone number they can call for further information about a particular food, and tougher regulations and more frequent inspections of food plants by the FDA,” said David Schardt, associate nutritionist at CSPI.

CSPI is calling on the FDA to implement new preventive control systems — called “HACCP” — in food plants to ensure that food does not become contaminated with allergens. HACCP, which stands for Hazards Analysis Critical Control Points, is being used by the meat, poultry, and seafood industries to control other forms of food contamination.

CSPI also called on Congress to beef up FDA’s inspections of food plants to better enforce food-safety laws and labeling requirements. FDA inspects the average food plant only once every five years, with states providing some additional inspections. “Consumers who suffer from food allergies will be at increased risk until the FDA has the resources to police the food industry,” said Schardt.