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In the United States a change in food labeling laws now makes this easier. As of January 1, 2006, all food labels must declare in plain language the top 8 food allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soy). These allergens must be listed on the ingredient list or via:
- the word 'Contains' followed by the name of the major food allergen (milk, wheat, or eggs, for example); or
- a parenthetical statement in the list of ingredients, e.g., 'albumin (egg)'.
Such ingredients must be listed even if they are present in colors, flavors, or spice blends. Additionally, manufacturers must list the specific nut or seafood that is used (e.g., almond, walnut, cashew; or tuna, salmon, shrimp, or lobster). While more than 160 foods have been identified as causing allergic reactions, the eight foods listed above cause 90% of food-allergic reactions.
Keep in mind, however, that the law only applies to products labeled on or after January 1, 2006. Depending on a product's shelf life, it takes a year or more before all newly sold products list ingredients in simple language. So we are just starting to consistently see the results of this new law in the marketplace.
Even so, continue to read all labels carefully, especially long shelf life items, and be on the lookout for scientific terms (i.e., 'casein' for milk, or 'albumin' for egg).
If you have a problem with any other problem foods that are not covered under the new law (like corn products), you will still have to be on the lookout for alternative names (like dextrose, starch, maltodextrin, etc.) This new law will do nothing to help you identify those foods.
The FDA's online Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) has additional information on the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA).