STATE — In support of National Food Allergy Awareness Week, May 8-14, New Jersey’s Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) is highlighting greater understanding of food allergies and their prevention.
One in 25 Americans, approximately 12 million people, experience allergic reactions to food each year. Most food allergies cause relatively minor symptoms such as itchiness, stomach discomfort, and hives, but some food allergies can cause severe reactions and can be life-threatening. In children, food is the most common trigger of allergy-related anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and may cause death).
“Fortunately, tests to diagnose food allergies are readily available, and there are a number of ways to prevent allergic reactions,” said Mary O’Dowd, Acting Commissioner of Health and Senior Services. “Careful reading of food packaging labels is one of the best ways to avoid food ingredients that cause allergies.”
Individuals can be allergic to any food. However, milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish (i.e., crab, lobster, shrimp), tree nuts (i.e., almonds, walnuts, pecans), peanuts, wheat, and soybeans are considered major food allergens because they are responsible for 90% of severe food allergic reactions. These eight foods, and any ingredients that contain derivatives of these foods, are subject to strict labeling requirements.
Federal law requires that food labels identify the food source names of all major food allergens. Allergens must be declared at least once on a label in one of three ways: it can appear in the name of the item (i.e., crab cakes), in the ingredient list in parentheses such as “flour (wheat),” or on the label immediately after the ingredient list in a “contains” statement (i.e., “contains wheat, milk, and soy”).
During inspections of wholesale food establishments, DHSS food safety staff routinely assess allergen cross-contamination issues and review food labels for compliance with allergen laws.
For people with food allergies, even a small amount of a certain food can cause a reaction. Anaphylactic reactions occur within minutes and if treatment is not immediate, death can follow.
“It is critical for the public to be knowledgeable about food allergies,” added O’Dowd. “It is all our responsibility to protect children from consuming food that may trigger an allergic reaction.”
There is no cure for food allergies. Strict avoidance of food allergens, as well as early recognition and management of allergic reactions to food, are vital to preventing serious health consequences. Consumers with food allergies must take precautionary steps, especially when eating out.
The following tips are useful for adults with food allergies or parents who have children with food allergies:
Tell restaurant staff of your allergy and ask about ingredients in food items
Ask if the kitchen can prepare a menu item for you that does not contain the food allergen
Read all food labels carefully. If in doubt about ingredients, contact the manufacturer
If you or your child experiences a food allergic reaction, seek medical help immediately
If you are diagnosed with a food allergy, talk to your doctor about using an epi-pen and food allergic reaction prevention and response measures
As part of Food Allergy Awareness Week, the DHSS Food and Drug Safety Program is distributing a poster, “Food Allergies; It’s a Matter of Life or Death” available in English and Spanish, which educates and reminds restaurant staff of their role in preventing food allergic reactions. This poster, developed by the New Jersey Restaurant Association and Rutgers University Food Policy Institute, is available upon request by visiting either http://www.state.nj.us/health/foodanddrugsafety/fseo.shtml or www.foodallergy.rutgers.edu/images/posters/Restaurant.pdf.
Consumers interested in learning more about food allergies and food labeling can visit the Food and Drug Safety Program website’s Consumer Information Page at www.state.nj.us/health/foodanddrugsafety/consumer.shtml.
Food Allergy Awareness Week is sponsored by the consumer group The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN), which works to educate people about food allergies and the potential severity of food allergies.
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