May is Food Allergy Action Month and May 10-16 is Allergen Awareness Week. As the Director of the FDA’s Food Labeling and Standards Staff, it’s my job to ensure that consumers have accurate, complete, and informative labels on the food that they buy. Food allergies are a top concern for us from a food safety perspective.
If you or a member of your family suffers from food allergies, you must protect yourself at all times. While some allergies are just irritating, approximately 30,000 Americans go to the emergency room each year to get treated for allergic reactions to food.
What is a food allergy? It is a specific kind of bad reaction to food that involves the immune system. The body produces an allergic antibody to a particular food. Once that food is eaten and binds with the antibody, there’s an allergic response.
A food allergy is not the same as a food intolerance. A food intolerance is an abnormal response to a food or food component, but it does not involve the immune system in the same way as a food allergy. Food allergies pose a greater and much more acute health risk.
In fact, it is estimated that up to 100 Americans die each year because of allergic reactions to food.
What are the symptoms of a food allergy? The most common symptoms are:
- Hives, itching, or skin rash
- Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat, or other parts of the body
- Wheezing, nasal congestion, or trouble breathing
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or fainting
In a severe allergic reaction to food, you may have more extreme versions of the above reactions. Or you may experience life-threatening symptoms such as:
- Swelling of the throat and air passages that makes it difficult to breathe
- Shock, with a severe drop in blood pressure
- Rapid, irregular pulse
- Loss of consciousness
To reduce the risks, the FDA is working to ensure that major allergenic ingredients in food are accurately labeled. Since 2006, food labels must state clearly whether the food contains any of the eight major food allergens:
- Tree nuts, such as almonds, walnuts, and pecans
- Shellfish such as crab, lobster, and shrimp
These foods account for 90 percent of all serious allergic reactions to food in the United States.
So remember to take all measures to protect yourself or your family members who suffer from food allergies. In addition to avoiding food items that cause a reaction, we recommend that persons with food allergies:
- Wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace stating that they have a food allergy
- Carry an auto-injector device containing epinephrine (adrenaline) for severe allergic reactions
- Seek medical help immediately if experiencing a food allergic reaction
- Sign-up for allergy alerts by email
- Subscribe to the allergy alert newsfeed
- Video: Reducing the Risk of Allergens
By Felicia Billingslea, Director of the Food Labeling and Standards Staff, FDA