Following years of lobbying by non-profit groups and food allergy families, sesame has moved a significant step forward to becoming the official top ninth food allergen in the United States.
On Nov. 17, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research (FASTER) Act of 2019 – H.R. 2117 – a bill with a number of food allergy measures, including making sesame an official top allergen. Studies show that sesame allergy affects as many as 1.5 million Americans, and is difficult to avoid. It often shows on food labels under vague terms like “spices” or “natural flavors”.
The non-profit group FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education) says the next big push will be moving the legislation forward early in the next session of Congress, with special emphasis on S.3451, the Senate version of the FASTER Act.
But for the moment, with the House vote, the food allergy community can celebrate a significant step. “To see this bill move forward today, getting this much closer to becoming a law, is a true achievement and I am so proud of the work FARE and our champions in Congress have done on behalf of our [food allergy] community,” said Lisa Gable, FARE’s CEO.
At the center of 90 legislative champions Gable references is Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA), the woman who introduced the House bill in April 2019. “Today is a big day for those living with potentially life-threatening food allergies and we will continue to keep working on this legislation until it is signed into law,” said Matsui.
Hopeful Sign in Bipartisan Support
The non-profit Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) has also lobbied for years to get sesame allergen status. “AAFA is thrilled to see that the FASTER Act passed the House of Representatives and we want to thank Rep. Matsui for her leadership on this bill,” said Jenna Riemenschneider, AAFA’s director of advocacy.
Riemenschneider stressed the hopeful message in unanimous bipartisan support. “Even though it is unlikely to pass the Senate with the very limited number of legislative days left and other priorities abounding, our community should see this as a great indication of what can be accomplished in the next Congress,” she told Allergic Living.
Gable credits the community for its grassroots support for FASTER, including a March advocacy day on Capitol Hill that involved 150 food allergy advocates holding (pre-pandemic) meetings with members of Congress and staff. More advocacy will also be required to see FASTER get signed into law.
FDA Signals Understanding
On Nov. 10, the FDA issued a draft of guidance that calls on manufacturers to voluntarily list sesame as an ingredient on food labels. While that falls short of the demands for mandatory labeling, it does indicate that sesame – and the seriousness of sesame allergy – is on the radar of the regulatory authority as well.
“The House passage of the FASTER Act is not only a great indication to our community, but also to the FDA,” says Riemenschneider. “We will continue to urge FDA to use the regulatory authority that it confirmed it has in the recent voluntary guidance to label sesame as a major allergen.”
Both FARE and AAFA say they will be letting the food community know shortly about further efforts to move the FASTER Act forward and, hopefully, into law.
In addition to the allergen status for sesame, FASTER covers a range of elements, including: CDC funding to gather disease prevalence data, a directive to study the costs to the consumer of food allergies, support for drug development and more. It is based on on proposals from a 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
Sesame is already a priority allergen in Europe, Canada and Australia.