In a huge win for the food allergy community, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the FASTER Act on April 14, 2021. The highlight of this bill is that it will make sesame the ninth top U.S. allergen.
The Senate already passed the FASTER Act (short for Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research) on March 3, as bill S.578. To become law, the bill just needs President Joe Biden’s signature. [Update: On April 23, 2021, he signed the bill, making it law.]
Advocates, lawmakers and parents of kids with sesame allergy all celebrated the news of the House vote. “There is nothing more important to the food allergy community than ensuring that the FASTER Act is put into law,” said Lisa Gable, CEO of the nonprofit FARE (Food Allergy Research and Education).
“My son Jared and I are so happy,” said parent advocate Stacey Saiontz. “This law will open a world of food choices for my son and others who are allergic to sesame – and provide them with a higher quality of life,” she said. Her child is among an estimated 1.5 million Americans living with a sesame allergy. Under existing labeling regulations, manufacturers don’t have to label sesame, and it can hide behind vague terms such such as “natural flavors” or “spices”. It’s also a popular flavor, often added to dips, spreads, crackers and more.
Kenneth Mendez, CEO and president of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), hailed the bill’s passing as “terrific progress for our food allergy community.”
That progress has come with considerable effort from the allergy non-profits and the food allergy community. FARE and AAFA each hosted email campaigns to make it easy for their followers to ask their representatives for support. The community responded by sending more than 10,000 emails to lawmakers.
Gable calls the FASTER Act her organization’s “highest legislative priority,” and FARE also organized a three-day virtual townhall in March, 2021. About 500 food allergy community members took part to lobby their members of Congress to support the act.
Report on Treatments, Prevalence
“Today is an important step forward for the more than 32 million Americans – including 5.6 million children – living with potentially life-threatening food allergies who rely on accurate food ingredient labels,” Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA), who has championed the FASTER Act in the House, said following the vote.
The lead co-sponsor, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), said: “Today, I was proud to see the FASTER Act pass the House.” Matsui stressed that “accurate food labels are vital tools that empower individuals and food allergy families to make safe, informed decisions.”
Both lawmakers note that while the act adds sesame to the list of major allergens in the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), it contains other significant elements for the food allergy community. Once enacted, the law will require the Department of Health and Human Services to prepare a report on opportunities related to: food allergy prevalence, testing, risk management, disease prevention and treatments.
Despite knowing that millions of Americans have food allergies, “our insight into the prevalence and risk factors of food allergies within different communities and populations is rather limited,” Matsui told Allergic Living. “If we’re going to make meaningful progress on preventing the onset and finding a cure for food allergies, we need to do more to recognize and treat food allergies and their underlying mechanisms.”
She views the federal report required by the FASTER Act as “an important first step in gathering the evidence we need to improve the health and quality of life of individuals and families living with food allergies.”
Sparing Emergency Room Trips
Following the President’s signature, food manufacturers will have until January 1, 2023 to ensure that they treat sesame like other top allergens; they will need to list sesame as an ingredient on food labels, and in plain language.
Melanie Carver, AAFA’s chief mission officer, has seen her organization pour years of work, even prior to the FASTER bill, into attaining status for sesame as a top allergen. She knows firsthand how tough the popular seed and its by-products are to avoid.
“Even as a seasoned food allergy educator and mom, I’ve made mistakes in not identifying sesame in a food that has led my son to having a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis). It is a very difficult food allergy to manage.” Carver says, “The new requirement to disclose sesame on a food label will help prevent anaphylaxis and trips to the emergency department.”
The current top eight U.S. allergens are: milk, egg, tree nuts, peanuts, shellfish, fish, wheat and soybeans. In Europe, Canada, the U.K. and Australia, sesame is already recognized as a major allergen, and clearly labeled.