A growing number of U.S. commercial bakeries are intentionally adding sesame to some breads and baked goods, then labeling sesame as an ingredient.
These additions just barely precede a new law coming into effect that makes sesame the ninth top allergen in the United States. The new practice is eliciting frustration and concern in the food allergy community.
The FASTER Act is meant to make food safer for Americans who are allergic to sesame. Under the law, which takes effect January 1, 2023, the FDA requires sesame to be clearly labeled on food packaging in plain language.
But news that baking industry companies and restaurants, such as Chick-fil-A and Pan-O-Gold, are instead adding a small amount of sesame to their products, in light of the new requirements, are “horrendous,” says Jason Linde of the nonprofit FARE. He says these businesses “chose to turn their backs on the approximately 1.6 million Americans with sesame allergy.”
“We are disappointed and frustrated that previously trusted companies would rather add small amounts of sesame flour to their bakery products than comply with the intent of the FASTER Act, clean their lines, and safely feed members of our community,” said Linde, FARE’s senior vice president, government and community affairs.
Allergic Living reached out to several restaurant chains and baking suppliers to learn more about sudden sesame flour additions. We’ve discovered the practice is widespread and growing. As well, we reached out to the FDA, which enforces food allergy labeling.
“While a practice of adding sesame and then declaring it on the label is not violative, it would make it more difficult for sesame allergic consumers to find foods that are safe for them to consume,” an FDA spokesperson said in an email. This is “a result the FDA does not support,” the spokesperson said.
Adding Sesame: What Chick-fil-A Says
Chick-fil-A alerted customers on its website that the new law led to a recipe change, so its white bun and multigrain brioche now include sesame as an ingredient. (One flat bread and one wrap have always contained it, the company states.)
A Chick-fil-A spokesperson says the fast-food chain learned from its bread suppliers of the change to include sesame in recipes. This occurred because the suppliers could not guarantee their production lines are sesame-free.
“Food safety and quality are our top priorities. We take great care in adhering to stringent food safety procedures,” the spokesperson told Allergic Living. “Chick-fil-A sources bread from multiple suppliers across the country and due to the shared production lines in our supplier facilities and use of shared cooking and preparation areas, we cannot ensure that our menu items are sesame-free.”
Flowers Foods, which includes brands Nature’s Own, Canyon Bakehouse, Wonder, Sunbeam and Merita, is among those adding sesame flour (less than 2%). It has announced that all buns, rolls and hoagies will now have sesame. All loaves will include a “may contain” warning on packaging due to possible cross-contact. An exception is the brand Dave’s Killer Bread, which has sesame as an actual ingredient in its breads and bagels.
Cross-contact with allergens during manufacturing can be a risk for severe reactions for people with food allergies, says Kenneth Mendez, president and CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA).
“However, instead of making changes to reduce this cross-contact risk, we are hearing reports about some companies intentionally adding sesame flour,” Mendez said. “We are concerned and disappointed that some companies are undermining the purpose of the FASTER Act.”
Impact on School Cafeteria Lunch
FARE and AAFA worked for years to lobby for and create the new food allergy legislation, along with the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI). FASTER (short for Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research) was signed into law on April 23, 2021. The act gave companies 18 months to comply with the requirements regarding sesame.
FARE’s Linde says that grace period was plenty of time to make the changes to ensure baked goods that do not contain sesame are free of cross-contact, or to appropriately label on packaging. “They knew the law was coming, yet they still decided to take this short cut,” he says.
The addition of sesame flour to products at restaurants and in retail will deprive many in the food allergy community of choices, he added.
Pan-O-Gold Baking Company, a supplier to retailers and schools primarily in the Midwest, has said it plans to add sesame flour to its bread and dough recipes, according to a petition on Change.org. The petition is an effort to change the strategy by the company, which supplies brands such as Country Hearth, Lakeland and Papa Pita.
It is especially problematic that suppliers to schools are adding sesame because students in the cafeteria might not be aware, Linde says. A student with a sesame allergy, who has always safely eaten a hamburger from the school cafeteria, could now potentially be exposed to sesame in the bun, he notes.
Bakers and Wendy’s on Adding Sesame
Pan-O-Gold did not respond to Allergic Living’s request for comment. It is one of more than 300 members of the American Bakers Association, the trade organization. We asked the association to comment on the sesame additions and whether there is an issue with sesame and cleaning production lines. Robb MacKie, the association’s president and CEO replied, but simply addressed transparency.
“Baking companies are working with their customers, including restaurants, to transparently disclose any allergen labeling changes to help ensure consumer safety,” said MacKie. Plus, he reminded allergic consumers to read labels carefully.
Those with sesame allergy should be aware: Olive Garden recently began adding sesame flour to its famous breadsticks. One news report says the company confirmed the addition relates to the new law and cross-contact risk.
Fast-food restaurant Wendy’s also has menu items (French toast sticks, and premium and value buns) that now contain sesame flour, according to a statement a Wendy’s spokesperson sent to Allergic Living. The company advises checking the brand’s mobile app for up-to-date ingredient information for the evolving menu.
“We take food safety and allergen matters very seriously. Like others in the restaurant industry, Wendy’s nutrition and allergen information was updated recently to include sesame, where applicable, in advance of the January 1, 2023 effective date of the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research Act,” Wendy’s said.
Linde says that fast-food giants such as Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A have purchasing power. He contends they could use that to tell the baking partners that they must keep sesame out of their products. “You lost the opportunity to do the right thing,” he says. “It’s frustrating and it hurts.”
But Chick-fil-A’s spokesperson counters that this is an industry-wide issue, and there are no sesame-free bread suppliers that could consistently supply Chick-fil-A’s bread volumes.
Bright Spot: Package Labeling
Linde is thankful, though, that Chick-fil-A communicated the recipe change, so that food-allergic customers are aware of the presence of sesame.
Customers with a sesame allergy may prefer to order the chain’s gluten-free bun, which does not contain a sesame ingredient. Bread products on the breakfast menu, including the tortilla, English muffin, mini yeast rolls and biscuit, are also free of sesame ingredients, the Chick-fil-A spokesperson says.
The move to add sesame flour in light of the FASTER Act is specific to bakers. Linde says food allergy families have been expressing concern and outrage to his nonprofit organization. “There is frustration. There was real hope and promise in the FASTER Act,” he says.
According to Linde, there was no indication that companies might take this type of action during negotiations with industry members and lawmakers about the law.
Food allergy advocate Stacey Saiontz’s 15-year-old son Jared is allergic to the seed. She finds it disappointing that more products will become off-limits due to companies adding sesame flour. “Sadly, this means that brands that had been safe for us are no longer safe,” she says.
However, Saiontz is glad to avoid spending hours calling companies to find out if sesame is in many packaged foods. “We are still very excited that sesame will be labeled,” Saiontz says.
The clear information on labels for products like salad dressings, crackers, granola bars, and sauces will still make this law a success for the allergy community, Linde says.
How to Proceed with Sesame Allergy
As of January 1, packaged food labels are required to clearly state if sesame is an ingredient. But the FASTER Act does not require products with a long shelf life that were distributed before 2023 to list sesame on the label.
During the transition period, the FDA recommends consumers proceed with caution and check with the manufacturer identified on the food product if uncertain whether a food product contains sesame.
Linde recommends being cautious with label reading for the first three to six months.
“It is critically important for food allergy consumers to continue to read every label every time and to inquire at restaurants and fast-food chains. Formerly safe foods may now contain sesame allergen,” says AAFA’s Mendez.
AAFA is eager to work with industry members, lawyers, the FDA and the food allergy community to improve allergen labeling and prevent “potentially harmful manufacturing practices,” Mendez says.
“We believe there is a workable solution with improved, regulated, and evidence-based precautionary allergy labeling that would ensure the safety of people with food allergy while eliminating manufacturers need to purposefully add a known allergen to reduce liability,” Mendez says.
FARE is raising concerns with the FDA about sesame flour being added to products in light of the new legislation, Linde says. However, potential legislative fixes, such as saying companies can’t add an allergen to products to comply, will take time, he says.