On May 31, 2001, the Associated Press released a story entitled “Food Makers Agree On Labeling Allergy-Inducing Foods.” The article was widely circulated.
We learned that many food companies had volunteered new labels stating in “plain English” whether the food contains milk, peanuts, eggs, soy, wheat, tree nuts, fish, or shellfish–what they consider to be the eight major allergens. No longer would ingredients like “casein” and “whey” be used without the consumer being told that the products in which they were used contained milk products. No longer would the allergens be included without disclosure in ingredients that are now exempt from federal labeling rules; that is, as ingredients in “flavor,” “flavoring,” “natural flavor,” “natural flavoring,” “colors,” or “spices.”
Sounds great! But when did the food industry begin to be concerned about people becoming ill because of deceptive labeling? Why did the food industry decide to take this labeling action at this time? How will this labeling initiative affect us? Let us examine these questions.
Let me begin by stating that as a consumer who has suffered from a life-threatening sensitivity to processed free glutamic acid (MSG) for over 30 years, I believe that the labeling initiative is a big scam.
The food industry is only concerned about disclosure of allergens because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made it clear that it is becoming difficult for the FDA to disregard the many reports they are receiving of consumers becoming ill from ingestion of undisclosed food ingredients. The FDA began to advise the food industry of their concerns regarding allergens in 1996.1 Recently, the FDA examined 85 independent cookie and ice cream manufacturers and found nearly 25 percent of their products contained unlabeled ingredients.
The FDA may be forced to develop regulations regarding labeling of allergens. To complicate matters for the food industry, Senator Kennedy is preparing to introduce a bill that would mandate disclosure of the eight listed allergens; and similar measures are being considered in the House of Representatives. Furthermore, food processors are concerned about the fact that fewer and fewer consumers are buying processed foods; and more product recalls are occurring not only for failure to list incidental ingredient, which is optional, but also some primary ingredients, which is required.
To demonstrate just how hot the allergen issue has become, last May attorney-generals from nine states acting together petitioned the FDA to require food processors to include a warning on labels when a product contains allergens. The food industry made it clear that they did not want the FDA to take such action because, they said, such labeling would frighten consumers, scaring away business. With voluntary labeling, the FDA would have an excuse to turn down the attorney-generals’ petition.
You may have noted more and more labels that now state “may contain (a food allergen).” The voluntarily labeling program is supposed to reduce, but not eliminate, the use of this meaningless statement that is solely intended to protect food companies from liability for inclusion of allergens. The “may contain” statement can be used under the new guidelines only if the following four criteria are met:
- The presence of a major allergen is documented via visual examination or testing of the processing line, equipment, ingredient or product, or by other means;
- The risk of a major allergen’s presence is unavoidable even when good manufacturing practices are followed;
- An allergen is present in some, but not all of the product line; and
- The presence of an allergen is potentially dangerous.
If only some of the four criteria apply, a food processor must improve its allergen control system or state on the label that the product contains the particular allergen.
Since this food industry labeling initiative is not binding, some food processors will determine not to adopt such a policy. Thus, consumption of processed food will remain Russian roulette for many food-sensitive consumers unless federal legislation is passed. It will be interesting to see what effect food-industry lobbying will have on killing Senator Kennedy’s legislation, or on watering it down to the point that it is worthless. Senator Kennedy was correct when he stated: “We simply can’t rely on the industry’s good faith to protect consumers with potentially fatal food allergies.”
To use the current popular term, let us look at just one of the “weakest links” in both the food industry initiative and the regulations being proposed by Senator Kennedy. The food industry, the FDA, and congressional leaders point to the fact that action on the eight major allergens will help 7,000,000 people who suffer from these allergens. But neither the voluntarily initiative nor the proposed law mentions protecting Americans from MSG.2 Disclosure of free glutamic acid would help over 25 percent of the population (over 65,000,000 people) who are MSG-sensitive,3,4,5,6 some of whom suffer life-threatening reactions. Both the voluntary initiative and the proposed law ignore the MSG problem. Even the FDA admits to the fact that approximately 2 percent of the population, (approximately 5,000,000 people) is sensitive to MSG.
To demonstrate just how effective governmental agencies are in protecting industry’s interest in keeping MSG hidden, on May 16 it was announced that Rymer Meat, Inc. voluntarily recalled 78,000 pounds of frozen breaded pork loin chops when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) determined that the product contained what the USDA described as “known allergens” (corn flour, corn starch, eggs, and non-fat milk). The announcement also stated that “monosodium glutamate, or MSG, was not listed as an ingredient in the pork chops.” There is no question that substances called “allergens” have been recognized as being life-threatening, but the USDA did not refer to monosodium glutamate as an allergen nor as a life-threatening substance.
Let Senator Kennedy’s office and your own federal legislators know of your feelings regarding this labeling issue. Until something is done to fully disclose the presence of free glutamic acid on the labels of all processed foods, we will continue to see an increase in its use, and an increase in migraine headaches, asthma, seizures, tachycardia, atrial fibrillation, spikes and precipitous drops in blood pressure, and irritable bowel syndrome, just to name a few conditions that can be the result of ingesting amounts of processed free glutamic acid (MSG) that exceed one’s tolerance for the substance.
Senator Edward Kennedy can be contacted at:
527 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
fax: (202) 224-3533
phone: (202) 244-7675
- Food Chemical News. p.4, Nov. 18, 1996.
- Glutamic acid that has been freed from protein due to a manufacturing process is the reactive component of the food ingredient “monosodium glutamate” and over 40 other food ingredients with names that give no clue to its presence.
- Kenney, RA and Tidball, CS Human susceptibility to oral monosodium L-glutamate. Am J Clin Nutr. 25:140-146,1972.
- Reif-Lehrer, L, Prevalence of Chinese restaurant syndrome. Federation Proceedings 35:1617-1623,1977.
- Kerr, GR, Wu-Lee, M, El-Lozy, M, McGandy, R, and Stare, F. Food -symptomatology questionnaires: risks of demand-bias questions and population-biased surveys. In: Glutamic Acid: Advances in Biochemistry and Physiology Filer, LJ, et al., eds. New York: Raven Press, 1979.
- Schaumburg, HH, Byck, R, Gerstl, R, and Mashman, JH. Monosodium L-glutamate: its pharmacology and role in the Chinese restaurant syndrome. Science 163:826-828,1969.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2001.