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The FDA's Foibles With Food Allergies

By Marcus Gilmer in News on Nov 21, 2008 9:00PM

2008_11_21_FDA.jpgOn the cover of today’s Chicago Tribune is the story of Patrick Pridemore, 4, of Kentucky, who has a severe wheat allergy. Patrick’s mom bought him foods specifically labeled “gluten free” to cater to those with allergies to wheat, barley and rye. Patrick had a severe reaction, though, because the foods still contained a life-threatening level of wheat, despite the label.

According to the investigation, "the government rarely inspects food to find problems and doesn’t punish companies that repeatedly violate labeling laws.” The FDA does not have any guidelines on the definition of “gluten free” labeling at this time, but the current proposal would define it as 20 parts per million (ppm). The Tribune investigation found varying levels in their testing of the products that caused Patrick’s reaction, ranging from 166 ppm to 2200 ppm.

The Tribune created a database of allergy-related food recalls since 1998, of which 47 percent were not announced to the public. Product recalls are voluntary, and the FDA allows food companies to write their own recalls, so often the process does not move quickly. In September, the FDA passed a law requiring food products to declare the country of origin on the packaging of meat. Spam, by the way, is exempt.

Eight different foods contribute to 90 percent of all food allergies, and the FDA requires that these allergens are identified clearly on a label. These are milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (almonds, cashews, walnuts), fish, shellfish (crab, lobster, shrimp), soy and wheat.

By Samantha Abernethy