It was an ordinary day in the Medler household. Lunchtime rolled around, and Joe, his wife, and their 14-month-old son, sat down to eat around the kitchen table. As soon as their young son took a bite from a veggie burger, hives, vomiting and a struggle to breathe ensued. Their next stop was the emergency room, and life for this young family, like many others, was forever altered. I know how well an allergic reaction can change your family's landscape from calm seas to a virtual tsunami in an instant. Joe's son was subsequently diagnosed with anaphylactic allergy to sesame.
Sesame allergies are on the rise in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Sesame is present in many common foods and spices. Reading the labels and avoiding those foods and spices will not safeguard a sesame allergic person in the United States. It is mandatory for sesame to be listed on food labels in the European Union, Australia/New Zealand and Canada. Here in the United States, sesame is not a part of the top eight allergen list, so it does not have to be listed as an ingredient, even if it's in the food.
As a parent who has a child with an anaphylactic allergy, I have no choice but to learn how to read and decipher labels. I often compare myself to a detective when it comes to purchasing safe food for my family. I walk the aisles of the supermarket for hours, trying to ferret out which products may contain peanuts, my son's poison. Food manufacturers in the United States must list peanuts if it is an ingredient, as it is one of the top eight allergens. But since sesame is not on this list, for the Medler family, and many other American families who have a sesame allergy, shopping for food is even more daunting and terrifying. Detection of sesame is not so simple. It is often not listed and hidden under other names. The inherent danger lies in the ability of food manufacturers to list the addition of sesame to their products under the guise of natural flavoring, spices, or tahini. Living with a food allergy is hard enough, but when there is not transparency in the listing of ingredients in food products, it becomes much more difficult.
Would it be a great cost to food manufacturers to list sesame as an ingredient on the labeling when it is in the food? Why does the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) have to enforce food companies to simply list what ingredients are in food? Why is it buyer beware of hidden ingredients? Why don't the food manufacturers do this voluntarily to protect vulnerable consumers? These are excellent questions with no acceptable answers as far as the public consumer is concerned.
World renowned professors of Pediatrics, Allergy and Immunology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Dr. Scott Sicherer and Dr. Hugh Sampson who have researched the prevalence of food allergies, including sesame, are among those who have signed their names on a CPSI (Center for Science In the Public Interest) citizens petition currently under consideration (since November 2014) on the FDA docket that would require labeling of sesame in a manner similar to labeling requirements of the other top eight allergens. Comments on the site are still being considered, as the FDA goes through the decision process. I would be remiss not to tell you that, even if sesame was to be mandatorily labeled, it will still be challenging to shop safely. This is because food made in a facility with any allergen, or on the same equipment of any allergen, can be dangerous and this type of labeling is also voluntary.
I believe all consumers have a right to know what is in their food, so they can make informed choices for their families. For food allergic families, a lack of disclosure puts our children at risk for fatal attacks. Food allergic families need this information so we, or our well-intentioned friends, families and schools, don't buy something that has a surreptitious ingredient in it that can kill.
When one receives a diagnosis of an anaphylactic allergy from your doctor, you learn it is vital that you always carry life saving epinephrine, in case of an attack. But you also leave with the admonition from your practioner to strictly avoid your allergen. This is a unique challenge for those with sesame allergies because there is no requirement to disclose its presence in food. Not all food allergic families are educated the same way, and I worry about the sesame allergic family who accepts a snack food on a plane with natural flavorings as an ingredient. If the Medler family emergency, or one like it, were to have taken place in the air, I shudder to think of the consequences at 35,000 feet.