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    A Times Editorial

    Tougher allergen law still needed

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 3, 2001

    Although most food allergy attacks happen at restaurants or homes and are generally not the fault of food corporations, labels are essential for the estimated 7-million food allergy sufferers who need to know exactly what they're eating. While current laws require companies to catalog on food labels some allergy-provoking ingredients such as milk and eggs, the industry just announced new voluntary guidelines that mandate a tally of all trace additives that might trigger allergic reactions as well.

    These directives are long overdue, but the government still should pursue its own more stringent guidelines. Industry leaders introduced the measures in part to head off impending congressional legislation that would extend the Food and Drug Administration's monitoring capabilities, giving the department powers to investigate food companies' private files.

    While the industry's voluntary belt-tightening is a start, it's not enough. Don't expect corporation officials to give up more than they absolutely have to. The companies do have steep financial incentives to follow the rules, which were mandated at the request of high-profile corporations such as Kraft and General Mills. Many of those afflicted with food allergies are children whose parents try diligently to keep allergy-causing foods away from the whole household. Although that percentage of consumers is small, it's enough to make companies actively seek its business. The rules also demand industry manufacturers to list their ingredients by their common names, which should mollify watchdogs' complaints that food labels are often incomprehensible to the average consumer.

    But House and Senate Democrats who proposed the tighter regulations should still pursue their passage. That legislation would give the FDA power to examine the companies' records to ensure that they don't accidentally put allergens in foods and impose costly fines on those companies that don't comply with the law. Although the industry argued that the new guidelines would push companies to follow the rules or risk looking unconcerned for consumer health, stronger laws would make the companies comply or risk prosecution. For the 200 Americans who died from food allergies last year, the legislation is too late. For the rest of the 7-million sufferers, the law could make their trips to the grocery store a little less hazardous.

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