As of Jan. 1, food and beverage products must state on their labels if they contain any of eight food allergens, as mandated by the Food and Drug Administration.
These allergens -- wheat, fish, shellfish, egg, tree nuts, peanuts, soybeans and milk -- account for 90% of food allergies, according to the FDA.
Haggen Food and Pharmacy in Bellingham, Wash., will provide consumer information about the new labels on its Web site and in its Well Aware magazine that's published twice a quarter, said Jan Rystrom, manager of the retailer's health and nutrition education department. She'll also educate customers through the weekly flier and in-store classes.
At McCaffrey's in Langhourne, Pa., dietitian Jill Kwasny said she'll probably provide information on allergens in stores and devote one of her lunchtime health talks to the subject.
Kwasny said that she expected McCaffrey's customers to be more interested than the general population in the allergen information. "We're located in an area where people are educated and care about food," she said.
Leah McGrath, dietitian at Ingles Markets in Black Mountain, N.C., plans to handle customers' questions via a toll-free number and her e-mail address, which are published in the circular. She also runs articles on food and labeling in the circulars and publishes the same information on the company's Web site.
Under the new law, the eight allergens must be noted on labels even if they are only present in minute amounts or are possibly present. So, even if a product is manufactured in the same factory as a product containing an allergen but contains none itself, the allergen's presence must be declared.
About 2% of adults and 5% of children in the United States suffer from food allergies, according to the FDA. Around 30,000 people require emergency room treatment every year, and 150 people die because of allergic reactions to food.
Americans are increasingly aware of their allergies and are more apt to self-diagnose, said Laurie Demeritt, president and chief operating officer of the Hartman Group, a health and wellness consulting firm in Bellevue, Wash.
"These people are clamoring for customization [of labels] to meet their needs," she said, pointing out that the labels should be as simple as possible and not bogged down with scientific facts.
Wheat and peanut declarations are likely to get particular attention from consumers. Supermarket nutritionists say the most common questions from shoppers are about gluten intolerance (also known as celiac disease), involving grains containing gluten, such as wheat. Meanwhile, the occurrence of peanut allergies in children doubled between 1997 and 2002, according to a study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
"In recent months, there has been a huge push for more information on allergens in food, specifically 'gluten-free' items," Leslie Macioce, quality assurance technologist for Giant Eagle in Pittsburgh, said in an e-mail interview. "However, there has been much debate over the determination of whether an item is gluten-free or not, depending on the source of certain starches, vinegars, etc." The retailer plans to provide customers with detailed lists of allergen-free foods.
Gluten and wheat allergies tend not to be too serious, but can make people feel bad, Demeritt said. Nut allergies, on the other hand, can be serious and can cause severe reactions, even death. The worst reactions are believed to be to peanuts and tree nuts such as almonds, pecans and walnuts.