Food allergy label changes come into effect

Health Canada's new food labelling regulations, which came into force Saturday, will make it easier for people with food allergies, their families and caregivers to determine which products to avoid.

The regulations were announced in February 2011. After an 18-month phase-in, packaged foods must clearly list allergens using common names, like "milk" instead of "hydrolyzed casein."

The new rules apply to priority allergens in foods known to cause 90 per cent of reactions:

Peanuts.

Eggs.

Milk.

Tree nuts (almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts).

Soy.

Sesame seeds.

Seafood (fish, crustaceans and shellfish).

Sulphites.

Mustard seed.

Glutens (oats, barley and rye).

Wheat (as a food).

The rules will require a listing of allergens in smaller components of the product. For example, if a product includes "spices," the label must list any allergens, glutens or sulphites contained in the spices.

Food allergies can trigger anaphylaxis, a life-threatening condition in which a person's immune system identifies foods as a threat, and attacks it. Symptoms can include blood pressure drops, narrowing of the airways and hives.

Marilyn Allen of Sutton, Ont., has been a driving force behind the food label changes for more than a decade. Allen is a founder of Anaphylaxis Canada, an advocacy group for people with food allergies. Her daughter, Robyn Lyn, died from her food allergies in 1990 at age 15.

Under the new regulations, packaged food companies have the option of either putting an allergen in the list of ingredients or adding a line with the word "contains X."

"It is going to require allergic people to look for the 'contain' statement," advised Allen, a food allergy consultant. "If it's absent, never assume. Then go back and read the ingredient list to make sure there’s been enough space on the label for that company to repeat that message twice."

Allen is celebrating the changes, but notes there are still gaps, such as:

The regulations don't apply to deli, bakery and bulk foods.

Beer is exempt from listing glutens, although the beverage may contain sulphites that trigger asthma and caramel colouring that include dairy.

The term "may contain X" is not regulated for allergens not listed in the ingredients, but may have cross-contaminated the food in trace amounts at the factory.

Allen hopes allergic consumers will monitor the new labels and report potential problems to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

Some companies have already been identifying "plain language" ingredients in their products voluntarily.

Liza Lukashevsky takes care to decipher ingredient lists after discovering her 10-year-old son Charlie is allergic to soy, yeast and sulphites.

"I think the more information that is put on food, the better," said Lukashevsky, owner of the Nut House, a bulk food store in Toronto with labelled bins.

Lukashevsky recalled that when her son was 2½, a daycare worker was pleased that he had eaten all his vegetables — a whole bag of edamame beans that the worker didn't realize were soy.

"That would've been a great example where if underneath edamame it says 'contains soy,' and she wouldn't have given it to him," said Lukashevsky, noting the daycare worker said she felt horrible seeing the boy break out in rashes.

Caregivers including daycare workers who look after children and shop for them could really benefit from the new labels, she said.

The new food allergen labels will bring a sigh of relief to many parents and school board bureaucrats, said Sylvain Charlebois, associate dean of the College of Management and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Australia and New Zealand also require warning of allergens on food labels, Charlebois noted. The United States and the EU are working on similar regulations.

Charlebois applauded the changes, but also called for allergen labels to be standardized globally for consistency and clarity.

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