Advocates’ Help Needed in ‘Full-Throttle’ Effort to Make Sesame 9th Top Allergen

By:
in Food Allergy, News, Soy & Seed
Published: January 20, 2021
Black and white seed sesame
Photo: Getty

Updated Jan. 30: The proposed FASTER Act, which would make sesame the ninth top U.S. food allergen, came so close to passing in 2020. In the year of the pandemic, it made its way through committees, got passed by the House of Representatives, and ultimately found unanimous support in the U.S. Senate in December. 

But then time simply ran out on the last session of Congress before the food allergy bill could become law.

In the new session of Congress, FASTER (Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research), has to start the process over, as a new bill going again through the House, committees and the Senate. Yet FARE, the nonprofit that led the lobby for this act, along with the lawmaker sponsoring the House bill are both optimistic that FASTER will succeed. And they aim to get it on the lawmakers’ radar as quickly as its name suggests.

“We will have the FASTER Act introduced into the 117th Congress within the first 100 days. We are extremely optimistic on that,” says Steve Danon, FARE’s Chief of Public Affairs and Communications. 

Before President Joe Biden was even sworn in, Danon and a colleague met with Rep. Doris Matsui, the author of the House bill, who plans to reintroduce it in the new session. As well, they’ve met with staffers for Senators Tim Scott and Chris Murphy, the bipartisan backers of the Senate bill, and were to meet with the new chair of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee.

FARE's Steve Danon
FARE’s public affairs chief Steve Danon

Matsui tells Allergic Living: “We are hopeful to move the reintroduced bill quickly through the legislative process in the new session. Thanks to an amazing outpouring of grassroots advocacy last Congress, we had over 90 bipartisan co-sponsors on the FASTER Act, and we are confident that support for labeling sesame will only grow this year.”

The grandmother of a child with a food allergy, Matsui credits food allergy advocates for the lawmakers’ support. The Congresswoman notes that it’s uncommon for a bill to become law on its first pass. Yet FASTER received unanimous support in both the House and the Senate last session. 

“That movement really is testament to the immense advocacy efforts of our grassroots supporters,” she says.

Grassroots Help Needed to Lobby

To ensure the FASTER Act succeeds, that support will be needed again. Danon is asking that the food allergy community register to take part in “a virtual fly-in” that FARE is organizing for March 8 to 10. 

Rep. Doris Matsui

Called “Courage at Congress 2021,” this interactive online conference will help food allergy advocates learn to lobby lawmakers in the current virtual-only world. It will feature Matsui and the senators leading the effort, as well as Dr. Alkis Togias, allergy/asthma branch chief with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Danon is optimistic about the renewed advocacy for FASTER. “We are moving full throttle forward to make sesame the top ninth allergen,” he says.

Sesame allergy affects about 1.5 million Americans, and by gaining status as a top allergen, sesame would have to be overtly labeled on food packages, like the current Top 8 allergens. Without that status, sesame is a very difficult allergen to avoid, since it is added to many foods and can be hidden behind vague terms such as “natural flavors” or “spices”. 

Sesame is recognized as a common allergen in other countries. It has priority allergen status that requires labeling across Europe, and in Canada and Australia.

In addition to allergen status for sesame, FASTER covers a range of supportive food allergy measures. These include: 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.  

“Food allergy families are truly resilient, and together we are working hard to make sure that this bill gets across the finish line,” says Matsui. She sees “plenty of reason for optimism.”

FDA Seeks Voluntary Status

The FDA has been aware for several years of the food allergy community’s concerns about sesame as an allergen. Unrelated to FASTER, on Nov. 10, the agency issued a draft of guidance that calls on manufacturers to voluntarily list sesame as an ingredient on food labels. The FDA extended public commenting on this guidance on this webpage.  

Although that measure would fall short of the demand for mandatory labeling, it is further recognition of the seriousness – and potential severity – of sesame allergy.

Related Reading: 
Learn About FARE’s March 8-10 Virtual Fly-In
Senate Passes FASTER Act, as Clock Ticks on Sesame’s Allergy Status
FASTER Act Would Make Food Allergies a Public Health Priority
If you have a peanut allergy, are you at risk of sesame allergy?