US edges towards making sesame declaration mandatory

19 Mar 2021

Earlier this month, the US Senate unanimously passed a bill to require food manufacturers to list in plain language sesame as an allergen on food packaging.

The Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research (FASTER) Act, S. 578, was promoted by FARE, a non-governmental organisation engaged in food allergy advocacy and introduced to the Senate by Senator Tim Scott of the Republican party and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy.

US edges towards making sesame declaration mandatory

If passed, any food sold on or after 1 January 2023 must declare the presence of sesame as a major food allergen.

The FASTER act would also require the federal government to analyse the most promising research opportunities in order to help scientists develop more effective treatments with the view of finding a potential cure for food allergies. FARE noted that currently, the federal government spends just 19 cents per person on allergy research.

In the US, an estimated 32 million individuals suffer from a food allergy, of whom more than 1.5 million are allergic to sesame. Sesame can trigger an anaphylactic reaction similar to peanut allergies, and can be fatal. Introducing the bipartisan bill, Scott noted that caring for children with food allergies costs an average of $25 billion annually.

Lisa Gable, chief executive officer of FARE, which is the world’s biggest private funder of food allergy research, said: “On behalf of the nearly 1.6 million Americans who are allergic to sesame and live with the fear they could unknowingly consume this dangerous allergen, I thank Senator Scott and Senator Murphy for bringing this critical piece of bipartisan legislation forward and the entire Senate for their overwhelming support. We now look forward to the House of Representatives passing the FASTER Act and sending it on to the President for his signature and enacting it into law.”

There are eight food allergens that manufacturers are required to declare in the US: peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, egg, cow’s milk, and fish. In November 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a draft guidance encouraging manufacturers to declare sesame voluntarily but there is currently no legal requirement to do so.

The non-profit organisation, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), worked with affected families to gather information and revealed in a 2015 report that many leading food brands, including Pringles, Kellogg’s, and Slim Jim, were failing to disclose their use of sesame as an ingredient, instead declaring it as ‘natural flavors’, ‘flavoring’ or ‘spices’.

Sesame may also be labelled as gingelly, sesamol, and til oil, making it difficult for individuals to understand quickly and easily what the product contains.

Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said people needed to be able to quickly identify products that might contain sesame.

“While most products containing sesame declare it as an ingredient, there are times when sesame is not required to be declared by name on the label, such as when it is used as a flavour or spice,” she said. “Other ingredients, like ‘tahini,’ are made by grinding sesame into a paste, but not all consumers are aware that tahini is made from sesame. In these instances, sesame may not be declared by name in the ingredient list on a product’s label.”

The FASTER bill does not mark the first time campaigners have taken up the issue of sesame labelling. In 2014, the CSPI joined leading allergists and affected families in filing a Citizen Petition before the FDA, calling on the agency to make labelling a legal requirement.

The European Union, Canada, Australia and New Zealand already require allergen labelling for sesame.

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