On November 10, 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration issued draft guidance to manufacturers regarding the labeling of sesame seeds and in food products. Allergy Shmallergy and AllergyStrong have tirelessly advocated for better labeling for sesame seeds alongside the Allergy & Asthma Network and others for years. We see this is a positive first step in achieving our goal of mandatory labeling.
Currently, sesame is the 9th most common allergen in the US and is not required to be clearly labeled on food ingredient labels. Unlike the requirement to label allergens in the “Top 8” (the eight most common food allergens) by their common, most recognizable name, sesame can be hidden under alternate, foreign names (like “tahini” or “bene seed”) or general terms such as “spices” or “natural flavors.” This means that patients who have a sesame seed allergy never truly know whether a food is safe for them by reading an ingredient label.
In the draft guidance, the FDA encourages (but does not require) food manufacturers to label for sesame. Susan Mayne, Director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition states, “Many Americans are allergic or sensitive to sesame, and they need the ability to quickly identify products that might contain sesame.” She notes that while most products that contain sesame are labeled properly, some ingredients are made from sesame seeds but are labeled otherwise. Consumers may not be familiar with these alternative names on a product label’s ingredient list.
Sesame seed allergies are on the rise in the United States. A 2019 study conducted by Dr. Ruchi Gupta and her team at Northwestern University shows that sesame allergy affects 0.23% of the U.S. population amounting to over 1.5 million patients nationwide – making it almost as common as soy or pistachio allergies which are required to be labeled as part of Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). And 4 out 5 patients with sesame allergy report having at least one additional allergy to manage.
1 in 3 patients with a sesame allergy have reported serious reactions. Given its rising prevalence combined with potentially dangerous reactions, it is surprising that updated guidance hasn’t been issued sooner. This move by the FDA is a positive first step towards mandatory labeling. Continued education about sesame seed allergy is needed so that lawmakers and food manufacturers can better protect their allergic consumers and bring the US labeling laws into better alignment with the other major Westernized nations. Currently, Canada, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia and New Zealand require sesame to be labeled in ingredient lists on all food products.
In the meantime, the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education & Research (FASTER) Act, H.R. 2117, S. 3451 has been introduced in both the House and Senate with the hope of getting it signed into law before the end of the year. Among the items included in the the FASTER Act is the proposal to update the current labeling laws (under FALCPA) to include sesame seeds.