A new federal law requiring sesame to be listed as an allergen on food labels has had the unintended consequence of increasing the number of products containing the ingredient.
Food industry experts say the requirements are so stringent that many manufacturers, especially bakers, have found it easier and less costly to add and label sesame seeds to their products than to try to keep them away from other foods or appliances that contain sesame.
As a result, several companies, including national restaurant chains such as Olive Garden, Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A, as well as bread makers that line grocery store shelves and serve schools, are adding sesame to products that weren’t there before. While the practice is legal, consumers and advocates say it violates the spirit of laws designed to make food safer for people with allergies.
“As a policy advocate and as a mother, it’s really exciting to get these labels,” said Naomi Seiler, a consultant with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America whose 9-year-old daughter Zoe is allergic to sesame seeds. “Instead, companies are intentionally adding allergens to food.”
The new law, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, requires all food products produced and sold in the United States to be labeled if they contain sesame, now the ninth leading allergen in the country. Sesame seeds can be found in obvious places, like on hamburgers. But it’s also an ingredient in many foods, from protein bars to ice cream, added to sauces, dips and salad dressings, and hidden in spices and dressings.
Advocates for families coping with allergies have lobbied for years to add sesame to the list of major allergens. Congress established eight labeling requirements in 2004: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
More than 1.6 million people in the United States have a sesame allergy, some severe enough to require injections of epinephrine, a drug used to treat life-threatening reactions. Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician and director of Northwestern University’s Center for Food Allergy and Asthma Research, said sesame allergies have been on the rise in recent years and more foods contain sesame.
“Sesame is in a lot of things and people don’t really know about it,” Gupta said, calling the move to add sesame to products “disappointing.”
“In families that do have a sesame allergy, it’s really challenging,” she said.
Under new laws enforced by the Food and Drug Administration, companies must now clearly label sesame as an ingredient or separately state that a product contains sesame. In the United States, ingredients are listed on product packaging in order of quantity. Sesame labels have been required elsewhere for years, including Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
If sesame is not included in the ingredients, companies must take steps to prevent the food from coming into contact with any sesame, known as cross-contamination.
Food industry experts say the new requirements are neither simple nor practical.
“It’s as if we’re suddenly asking bakers to go to the beach and remove all the sand,” said Nathan Mirdamadi, a commercial food hygiene consultant who advises the industry on food safety.
Some companies include a statement on the label that the food “may contain” certain products or that the food was “produced in a facility that uses certain allergens.” However, according to the FDA, such declarations are voluntary, not required, and they do not exempt companies from the requirement to prevent cross-contamination.
Instead, some companies are taking a different approach. Officials at Olive Garden said that starting this week, the chain will add “a small amount of ground sesame seeds” to the company’s famous breadsticks “due to the possibility of cross-contamination at the bakery.”
Chick-fil-A has changed its white bread and multigrain brioche bread to include sesame seeds, while Wendy’s said the company has added sesame seeds to its French toast sticks and breads.
United States Bakery, which operates Franz Family Bakeries in California and the Northwest, notified customers in March that they would add a small amount of ground sesame seeds to all hamburger and hot dog buns and rolls “to reduce the risk of any adverse reaction to sesame products.”
The agency said in a statement that while such actions do not violate the law, the FDA “does not support” them.
“This will make it more difficult for customers with sesame allergies to find foods that are safe for them to eat,” the statement said.
Some major companies have previously added other allergens to their products and updated their labels. In 2016, Kellogg sparked protests when it added traces of peanut flour to some cookies and crackers.
For parents like Christie Fitzgerald of Crookston, Minnesota, it’s frustrating and scary. She learned last spring that Pan-O-Gold Baking Co., which supplies bread to schools, health centers and grocery stores in the Midwest, adds small amounts of sesame seeds to its products, including those served at her daughter’s school. Meanwhile, six-year-old Audrey is no longer allergic to sesame.
Bob Huebner, Pan-O-Gold’s food safety/quality assurance manager, told Fitzgerald in a series of emails that the company was forced to add sesame seeds to its products and labels.
“The unfortunate reality is that our equipment and bakery don’t have the allergen cleaning setup needed to prevent sesame cross-contamination, and that wasn’t an option for us,” Huebner wrote to Fitzgerald in an email. Huebner responded to an email from The Associated Press but did not answer questions about the company’s practices.
Fitzgerald started an online petition protesting the move to add sesame seeds.
“Someday, someone will feed sesame to an allergic child,” Fitzgerald said. “It makes me think the law needs to be changed to show that this is not an acceptable practice.”
The Associated Press Health and Science Division is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The Associated Press is solely responsible for all content.