What are our responsibilities regarding food allergies?

Knowing what food allergies are -- as well as the responsibility of manufacturers, retailers and individuals -- can help prevent a potentially fatal consequence.

Peanuts are one of the eight most common allergens identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Peanuts are one of the eight most common allergens identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Chances are, you know someone who has a food allergy, which affects about 32 million people in the United States. The term “allergy” can often be used incorrectly, as some people have what is considered an “intolerance” but refer to it as an “allergy.” The main difference is that an allergic reaction involves an immune response, where the body attacks something it recognizes as a foreign body (an allergen), and this response can affect multiple organs. Intolerance is not an immune response, and the reaction is typically isolated to the digestive track. Food allergies are becoming more commonplace, as the incidence of food allergies in children increased by 50% from 1997 to 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some common symptoms of food allergies include:

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Vomiting/diarrhea.
  • Rash/hives.
  • Tingling or swelling in the facial area.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Anaphylaxis in severe reactions.

Some common symptoms of food intolerance include:

  • Abdominal pain.
  • Vomiting/diarrhea.

Common allergens

Up until 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had identified eight most common allergens, but in April 2021, the FDA included sesame as a ninth major food allergen. Although there are over 160 foods that cause allergies. These nine foods account for over 90% of all food allergies:

  • Milk.
  • Wheat.
  • Soy.
  • Shellfish (e.g., crab, lobster, shrimp).
  • Fish (e.g., bass, flounder, cod).
  • Tree nuts (e.g., pecans, almonds, walnuts).
  • Peanuts.
  • Eggs.
  • Sesame.

Manufacturer responsibility

It is a law that food manufacturers must label their products and identify if it contains any of these common allergens. Manufacturers must also clearly and honestly label the ingredients in their product. This means that if one of the above allergens are used in a product, then it must be clearly stated in the ingredient list. For example, a food item may state the ingredients like “whey (milk),” or it must be listed in a statement such as “contains milk” next to the ingredient list.

This law does not require manufacturers to label products when cross-contact could have occurred. Cross-contact is when a food is contaminated when using the same surfaces or equipment that contained an allergen. However, many manufacturers choose to state this on their label – such as “produced in a facility that also uses peanuts.” 

Retailer responsibility

As reported by the Food Allergy Research and Education Organization, most fatal allergic reactions occur outside of the home, in venues such as restaurants. The food industry has a responsibility to practice safe food handling to limit the occurrence of food allergies as well as foodborne illness. It is now a law in Michigan, as well as many other states, that food service operators receive food allergy training. Some large companies have their own training program, and there are other options such as ServSafe®, which is a nationally recognized training program. If operations do not have proof of food allergy training, they may be subject to citations/fines.

Personal responsibility

It is an individual’s responsibility to disclose food allergies, and while there could be people who incorrectly refer to their food aversion or intolerance as an allergy, we all have a responsibility to honor it. This can be done by providing allergen-free food, which includes preparing food in an environment that will not contaminate allergen-free food and being sure to clean and sanitize adequately to avoid cross-contamination.

Many schools or public institutions have become “peanut-free” to avoid potentially causing a reaction that could have fatal consequences. Because the incidence of food allergies is higher in children and because they have limited knowledge, authority or willpower, it is important to check for food allergies before providing food to children, especially in a classroom or youth group setting. 

Michigan State University Extension offers ServSafe® food safety training for those working in the food service industry. For more information, contact your local MSU Extension office.

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