The two largest groups representing the US food industry are today issuing voluntary guidelines on how their members specify on food products the presence of ingredients that may cause potentially fatal reactions, even when present in tiny amounts. The number of people suffering allergic reactions has soared in recent years, and for some time consumers and advocacy groups have been campaigning for tighter legislation.

Currently, manufacturers are not required to identify trace amounts of allergy-provoking ingredients such as milk and egg proteins, but they can lead to serious illness or death. Some seven million US citizens suffer from food allergies, and they need to be able to rely on ingredient labels to know which foods to avoid. Every year 30,000 people are rushed to hospital with violent food allergies, and 200 die as a result.

The Grocery Manufacturers of America, which represents about 140 companies including heavyweights such as Nestlé, General Mills and Kraft, is hoping that the new guidelines it has issued together with the National Food Processors Association (which represents about 400 companies), will encourage government to put its planned legislative changes on the backburner.

Democrats in the House and Senate are currently working to introduce legislation that will clamp down on loopholes and impose tighter regulations on manufacturers. “We simply can’t rely on the industry’s good faith to protect consumers with potential fatal food allergies,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy told the New York Times.

The proposed legislation will allow the Food and Drug Administration access to companies’ records to make sure allergens do not inadvertently end up in foods. The FDA will also have powers to fine companies that fail to comply, which it cannot currently do.

A spokeswoman for the NFPA, Regina Hildwine, said that the group hopes the marketplace, rather than government, drives the issue. She argues that if consumers feel they need this information, they will vote with their shopping trolleys and penalise producers who fail to offer it.

A key recommendation in the new guideline is a call for plain English. All too often, technical terms are used, such as ‘casein’ or ‘albumen,’ which are not as readily recognised as ‘milk’ or ‘egg.’ While these terms will not disappear, the more common term will be added to the ingredients list or printed in a special label – a format already used by breakfast cereal maker Kellogg.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) was sceptical about the guidelines. Director Michael Jacobson commented: “Politically, these recommendations are designed to undercut legislation or regulations.”

One of’s US correspondents, Pam Ahlberg, recently wrote a feature on this issue. To read it, please click here.