Biden Just Signed a Major Food Allergy Law—Here’s What You Need to Know

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President Joe Biden signed a new food allergy bill into law, which could have significant benefits for people who have severe food allergies. The Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research (FASTER) Act of 2021 newly identifies sesame as a “major food allergen” that requires clear labeling by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The law, which was introduced and passed by the Senate in March 2021 and passed by the House in April with bipartisan support, also improves federal research into food allergies and promotes better regulation of major food allergens. 

Beginning on January 1, 2023, foods containing sesame (or a protein from sesame seeds) must contain clear labeling indicating so on the packaging. Sesame joins the eight existing major food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish (such as crab and shrimp), tree nuts (such as almonds and walnuts), peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Together, these foods account for over 90% of all documented food allergies in the U.S. and are the most likely to cause a severe or fatal reaction, according to the FDA. 

Almost 1.6 million Americans are allergic to sesame, according to a news release from the non-profit Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), which conducts food allergy advocacy (including pushing for the passage of the FASTER Act) and funds food allergy research. And since sesame can be present in foods labeled as simply containing “natural flavors” or “natural spices,” consumers checking an ingredients label for sesame or sesame-derived ingredients may miss it, FARE explains. Sesame ingredients, which may be in the form of whole seeds, oil, flour, paste, or salt, can also be listed under names like benne, gingelly, gomasio, halva, sesamol, sim sim, and tahini, according to FARE. 

Sesame has been a growing allergy threat in recent years. In 2019, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) published data from a nationally representative survey of over 50,0000 households suggesting that at least 0.2% of children and adults in the U.S. are allergic to sesame, making it the ninth most common food allergy in the country. The severity of a sesame allergic reaction can vary, from mild symptoms (like hives) to a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, according to FARE. Over half of individuals with a sesame allergy have been treated in an emergency department for a food allergy reaction, according to the AAAAI research, and one in three reported previously having a sesame reaction that was treated with an epinephrine pen. 

But the FASTER Act isn’t just about sesame—it also takes actions to promote the health and safety of people dealing with other food allergies moving forward. For instance, the law requires the Secretary of Health and Human Services (H.H.S) to submit a report on the federal government’s food allergy research efforts as well as recommendations for improving research about food allergies, including data collection, diagnosis, and treatment. This report will also lay the groundwork for a regulatory process “that would allow for the timely, transparent, and evidence-based modification of the definition of ‘major food allergen,’” the bill says. That will include the development of scientific criteria for what, exactly, makes something a “major” food allergen.

Because of the new law’s broader focus on food allergy research, FARE says, it “will benefit the 85 million Americans who are affected by food allergies and intolerances, including 32 million who have a potentially life-threatening condition.”

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