Case Overview, Food Allergen Labeling

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over food allergen labeling. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.


           A strong consumer movement emerged in this country in the late 1960s and since that time it has been a forceful presence in American politics. On the national level organizations like the Consumer Federation of American, Consumers' Union, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and a number of organizations associated with Ralph Nader, have worked to influence Congress, agencies, and the public. One area these organizations have worked in is food safety. They've had success over the years convincing government to require extensive labeling of commercial food products so that consumers can make an informed choice when deciding on the purchase of a food product that has been subjected to some manufacturing process. Thus, whether it be a box of Cheerios or a bag of pretzels, we can look at the label to see how much sugar, sodium, cholesterol, and vitamins (among other things) are contained in each serving of the product.

           In each of the many public policy conflicts concerning food safety, consumer groups have been opposed by the industry producing or marketing those products. Although committed in their own way to food safety, food-related businesses have often objected to regulation because it can raise their costs. More broadly, regulation restricts their freedom. Such has been the case with food allergen labeling. Despite the extensive and informative labels that now appear on food products, there is no requirement that ingredients that may initiate an allergic reaction be identified. There is no exact count of how many people have allergies since the degree of sensitivity varies greatly in each individual. Members of Congress and their aides working on behalf of food allergen labeling used the figure of 4 to 7 million Americans with serious allergies. Said one aide, "Food allergies are a bigger problem than most people think. It's bigger than we thought. Hundreds die each year."

           In the 107th Congress legislation to require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to mandate allergen information to be included in food labels was introduced by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY). Not surprisingly, industry trade groups fought the proposal. Said one industry lobbyist working on the issue, "We're not too sympathetic towards the legislation, as you can imagine. The label changes will cost the industry millions of dollars because we'll have to throw out old packaging, design new ones, and print up new ones." Moreover, he added, "Partly as a liability trend and partly to maintain consumer confidence in our products, the industry has already begun to resolve this issue on its own."

           Legislators and lobbyists working in favor of the legislation found these voluntary efforts inadequate and continued to push forward, without success, in the 107th Congress. A working group at the FDA continued to study the issue, though there is no indication that the FDA will initiate rulemaking on its own. In the 108th Congress the legislation was reintroduced but its chances for passage are poor. Conservatives controlling Congress see the issue as another example of unnecessary expansion of regulatory authority.