Food Label Fight

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    A federal law requiring that sesame be listed as an allergen on food labels is actually increasing the number of products that include the ingredient. (AP/Matthew Mead)
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    A notification for sesame is printed under the ingredient list on a bag of hot dog buns. (AP/Patrick Sison)
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    Olive Garden added some sesame flour to its breadsticks. (Olive Garden)
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    A Palestinian farmer harvests sesame seeds in the West Bank village of Sanour. (AP/Mohammed Ballas)
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    Janet Mitchell, right, and her four-year-old son, John Thomas, look for peanuts on the ingredients label of snack food. John Thomas is allergic to peanuts. Millions of people in the United States have a food allergy. (AP/Stephen Morton)
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More than 12 million people in the United States have food allergies. For some, a reaction to sesame can be life-threatening. But instead of reducing sesame usage, a new law may be doing the opposite.

In 2004, the U.S. Congress created labeling requirements for the eight most common food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Sesame was number nine.

Sesame shows up in obvious places, like seeds on hamburger buns. It’s also added to foods from protein bars to ice cream.

To help allergic consumers avoid sesame, a new law took effect January 1. It requires U.S. companies to label even trace amounts of the ingredient.

Here’s the tricky part: To avoid contamination, the law also says companies must keep foods from contact with sesame.

Some industry experts say the law, especially the no-contact part, is too strict. They call the procedures, cleanings, and equipment needed to comply impractical, time-consuming, and expensive. Food safety consultant Nathan Mirdamadi compares the requirement to “ask[ing] bakers to go to the beach and remove all the sand.”

Many manufacturers found a simple and inexpensive work-around. They add sesame to their products and label them instead of trying to keep the ingredient from touching food or equipment.

For this reason, some restaurant chains put sesame in products that didn’t have it before. Many bread makers added sesame too.

Olive Garden has begun adding “a minimal amount of sesame flour” to the company’s famous breadsticks. This is “due to the potential for cross-contamination at the bakery.”

Chick-fil-A changed its buns to include sesame. Wendy’s added sesame to its French toast sticks and buns.

Such practice is legal. But consumers and advocates say it violates the biblical concept of spirit of the law. They believe laws should make food safer for people with allergies, not more dangerous.

Concerned parent Kristy Fitzgerald learned last spring that breads served at her daughter’s school would include added sesame.

Bob Huebner, a manager for Pan-O-Gold Bakeries, emailed Fitzgerald: “Our equipment and bakeries are not set up for allergen cleanings that would be required to prevent sesame cross-contamination.”

Huebner is in a difficult spot. Sudden rule changes could harm his business. Adding sesame and labeling it solved his problem. Doing so was lawful and provided the necessary warning for allergic persons.

Thankfully, Fitzgerald’s daughter has outgrown her allergy. But Fitzgerald is still worried. “At some point, someone is going to feed an allergic child sesame,” she says. “The laws need to change to show that this is not an acceptable practice.”

Why? Actions have consequences, often unintended ones. God wants humans to love one another enough to consider how our actions affect others—just as we would want someone to consider us.