In support of National Food Allergy Awareness Week, May 12-18, the Department of Health (DOH) is promoting greater awareness of food allergies and food allergic reactions.
Nearly 1 in 25 Americans or approximately 12 million people experience allergic reactions to food each year. Most food allergies cause relatively minor symptoms such as itchiness, stomach discomfort, and hives, but some food allergies can cause severe reactions and can be life-threatening. In children, food is the most common trigger of allergy-related anaphylaxis, which is a severe allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and may cause death.
"Fortunately, tests to diagnose food allergies are readily available, and there are a number of ways to prevent allergic reactions," said Mary E. O'Dowd, Commissioner of Health. "Careful reading of food packaging labels is one of the best ways to avoid ingredients that cause allergic reactions."
Individuals can be allergic to any food. However, milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish (i.e., crab, lobster, shrimp), tree nuts (i.e., almonds, walnuts, pecans), peanuts, wheat, and soybeans are classified as "major food allergens" because they are responsible for 90 percent of severe food allergic reactions. These eight foods, and any ingredients that contain derivatives of these foods, are subject to strict labeling requirements.
Federal law requires that the names of all "major food allergens" be identified on the label. This can be achieved in one of three ways: the name of the item (i.e., crab cakes); the ingredients in parentheses such as "flour (wheat);" or on the label immediately after the ingredients list in a "contains" statement (i.e., "contains wheat, milk, and soy"). During inspections of wholesale food establishments, DOH food safety staff routinely assesses allergen cross-contamination issues and reviews food labels for compliance with allergen labeling requirements.
For people with food allergies, even a small amount of a certain food can cause a reaction. Anaphylactic reactions occur within minutes and if treatment is not immediate, it can be fatal. There is no cure for food allergies. Strict avoidance of allergens, as well as early recognition and management of reactions to food, is vital to preventing serious health consequences. Consumers with food allergies must take precautionary steps, especially when eating out.
The following tips are useful for adults with food allergies or parents who have children with food allergies:
- Read all food labels carefully. If in doubt about ingredients, contact the manufacturer;
- If you or your child experiences a food allergic reaction, seek medical help immediately;
- If you are diagnosed with a food allergy, talk to your doctor about using an epi-pen and food allergic reaction prevention and response measures;
- Notify the school nurse if your child has an allergy;
- When eating out, tell restaurant staff about your allergies and ask about ingredients in food; and
- Ask if the kitchen can prepare an item that does not contain a food allergen.
"It is critical for the public to be knowledgeable about food allergies," added O'Dowd. "Protecting children from consuming food that may trigger an allergic reaction is a significant responsibility."
As part of Food Allergy Awareness Week, the DOH Food and Drug Safety Program is distributing a poster, "Food Allergies: It's a Matter of Life or Death" available in English and Spanish, which educates and reminds restaurant staff of their role in preventing food allergic reactions. This poster, developed through a partnership with the New Jersey Restaurant Association, Rutgers University Food Policy Institute, and DOH is available upon request by contacting the Food and Drug Safety Program at 609-826-4935, or visiting either http://www.state.nj.us/health/foodanddrugsafety/fseo.shtml or www.foodallergy.rutgers.edu/images/posters/Restaurant.pdf.
Consumers interested in learning more about food allergies and food labeling can visit the Food and Drug Safety Program website's Consumer Information Page at www.state.nj.us/health/foodanddrugsafety/consumer.shtml.
Food Allergy Awareness Week is sponsored by the consumer group Food Allergy and Research, Inc. (FARE), which works to educate people about food allergies and the potential severity of food allergies. Additional information can be found at www.foodallergy.org.