US versus EU Food Allergen Labelling
Alex Gazzola explains how to be ‘label aware’ when you cross the Atlantic with coeliac disease, food allergies or intolerances.
Given the standardised EU-wide allergen labelling laws, UK residents visiting continental Europe are generally able to negotiate product labels, provided they can find their way around words such as 'blé' (French for wheat) or 'leche' (Spanish for milk). However those visiting the US will be at a disadvantage, despite the comfort of a shared language, and will have to handle key regulation differences and other potential stumbling blocks.
Food allergen labelling in America is determined by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA), which is enforced by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The 8 allergens defined by the Act are:
The Act specifies that labels must identify the presence of these foods or foods which contain protein derived from them. These include flavourings, additives and processing aids.
This must be done in at least one way:
1. Naming the allergen ingredient itself.
Differences between EU and US
There are several differences that are a potential concern:
1. The EU allergens celery (and celeriac), sesame, sulphites, lupin, molluscs and mustard are not considered allergens in the US. So, in these cases, while the ingredient itself would appear in the US if used in the product recipe, a derivative or group / generic term may ‘mask’ the allergen. For instance, “spice mix” could theoretically contain mustard, where in the EU it would be disclosed as “spice mix (contains mustard)”
2. Wheat is the only cereal containing gluten on the US list – meaning rye, barley and oats are not. Therefore, theoretically, ‘malt vinegar’ need not declare ‘barley’ as the source in the US, and it is not always possible to determine whether a product is gluten-free from scrutinising the ingredients and ensuring an absence of a ‘may contain wheat / gluten’ warning. Coeliacs should always look for explicit ‘gluten free’ labelling which, like in the EU, ensures 20ppm gluten or under.
3. EU law specifies the tree nuts as being almonds, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts — which must be named on labels. The US Act incorporates all these nuts within its ‘tree nuts’ definition, but additionally includes chestnut, coconut, pine nut, shea nut and several other obscure nuts / seeds, such as beech nut, ginkgo nut, and pill nut. This is useful to EU members travelling to the US who are allergic to these rarer nuts / seeds.
4. EU law requires every inclusion of a particular allergen to be named and highlighted, but in US law, an allergen present multiple times need only be mentioned once. So where “milk, whey (milk), lactose (from milk)” might be required in the UK, when a product contains milk, whey and lactose as three separate ingredients, in the US, it might be rendered as “milk, whey, lactose”.
The potential risk for anyone accustomed to the EU system is that, if they do not react to some derivatives of their allergens (eg lactose, soy lecithin) they may be falsely reassured to only identify that one source of their allergen in an ingredients list, when there may potentially be another...
As an example, take a product with both soya-derived lecithin and soya-derived vegetable protein. In the EU, this would need to be rendered as “lecithin (soya), vegetable protein (from soya)”, but in the US, the ingredients could read “lecithin, vegetable protein” and be followed by a “Contains: soy”. This could mislead the lecithin-tolerating soya-allergic individual towards error, in assuming that lecithin was the only soy-based ingredient.
5. Mirroring the EU situation, highly processed oils are exempt from declaration. However wheat derived glucose and maltodextrin, exempt from obligatory declaration in the EU, are not exempt in the US, so would be declared, even though they are widely tolerated by almost all who avoid wheat proteins.
When FALCPA does not apply
FALCPA applies to all pre-packed foods except most meats and some egg products, which are regulated by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), and most alcoholic beverages, which are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (ATTB).
The USDA regulations demand that ingredients are listed on the products that fall under its aegis, but allergen labelling is voluntary. This means that many allergen-derived ingredients could ‘mask’ allergen content under vague or more unusual terms — such as vegetable starch, dextrose, casein and others. That said, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) estimate that there is up to 90% voluntary compliance with the FALCPA allergen labelling regulations.
The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (ATTB) permits voluntary allergen declaration on wines, distilled spirits and malt beverages, although there is a proposal to make this mandatory. Under an interim rule, if manufacturers choose to declare, they must do so via a “Contains” statement, followed by any and every one of the eight allergens used in the production of the beverage, including any used for fining or as processing agents. Note, then, that products without any allergen declaration may not be safe for you.
FALCPA also does not apply in food service, nor to drugs, cosmetics, nor pet foods.
‘Dairy Free’ vs ‘Non-Dairy’
A warning to those with milk allergy: ‘dairy free’ and ‘non-dairy’ do not mean the same thing in the US.
‘Non-Dairy’ indicates a product with less than 0.5% milk – but milk is permitted. You may find milk in a rice-based coffee creamer or a soy-based cheese product, for example, as casein derivatives are sometimes used in such products. They have to be declared as “sodium caseinate (milk)” so always check.
‘Dairy free’ is not legislated nor defined, like in the UK, but it appears a far more likely safe option. Always look for “may contain traces of milk” warnings on such products, and on any products labelled “vegan” too, which is no guarantee of milk allergy (or egg allergy) safety, as is also the case in the EU, at least while the definition of ‘vegan’ is being reviewed and possibly revised.
‘Gluten Free’ vs ‘Gluten Removed’ beer
When it comes to gluten-free beer, the US is actually stricter in its definitions than the EU.
Where barley (or wheat) derived beers which are treated with gluten-degrading enzymes may be labelled “gluten free” in the EU – albeit with the allergen wheat or barley declared – in the US they can only be described as “gluten reduced” or “gluten removed”.“Gluten free” beers in the US are ‘truly’ GF, in that they do not contain any gluten-containing grain at all. Typically, these beers are based on millet, sorghum, rice and sometimes other non-gluten grains or pseudo-cereals such as quinoa.