- President Joe Biden signed legislation declaring sesame a major food allergen on Friday evening. All products that use sesame seeds or items derived from them will have to be explicitly labeled after Jan. 1, 2023.
- The bill also mandates a detailed report on federal government activity to classify, measure, diagnose and prevent food allergies in the United States. This report also tasks the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with presenting a plan for modifying the federal government's list of major allergens in a timely fashion through regulation. The report must be presented to Congress and posted on the HHS website in 18 months.
- Naming sesame a major allergen has been on the federal government's docket since 2018, when the Food and Drug Administration started looking into the prevalence and severity of allergies to the seed. In November, FDA published draft guidance in the Federal Register asking manufacturers to voluntarily disclose the ingredient. Similar legislation passed both houses of Congress last year, but did not make it to the president's desk.
The declaration of sesame as the ninth major allergen had been a widely expected move. The question was largely not whether it would happen, but rather when and how the declaration would be made. Sesame will now join dairy, soy, wheat, peanuts, eggs, tree nuts, fish and shellfish as an ingredient that must be specifically called out on food packaging.
The successful version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., passed the Senate with unanimous consent and made it through the House of Representatives on a roll call vote of 415-11. The bill, known as the FASTER Act, had eight co-sponsors — five Democrats and three Republicans — and clearly showed food allergies are a nonpartisan issue.
This legislation was the top priority of Food Allergy Research & Education, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to advocacy for food allergies and funding research.
"The President's signing today of the FASTER Act is a major victory for the entire food allergy community across the nation," FARE CEO Lisa Gable said in a written statement. "...It was because of our champions and advocates that the FASTER Act was introduced, passed and signed into law during President Biden's first 100 days in office."
According to research published in JAMA in 2019, as many as 1.6 million people in the United States — about 0.49% of the population — could be allergic to sesame. Another study done by the National Institutes of Health and published in the journal Pediatric Allergy and Immunology found that 17% of children with other food allergies are also allergic to sesame.
The allergic reactions to sesame also tend to be some of the most severe. Research from the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that nearly 39% of children and 45% of adults with sesame allergies had severe reactions, defined as a reaction involving at least two organ systems or anaphylaxis. This is a higher incidence than severe reactions to egg and milk for children and adults, and wheat for adults. Additionally, a third of adults with sesame allergies had at least one visit to the emergency department in the previous year, according to data in the CSPI report.
Sesame has been codified as a major allergen throughout Europe and the Middle East, as well as Canada and Australia, so international manufacturers are used to dealing with labeling requirements, as well as careful handling of the seed when making products. Additionally, in 2019 Illinois passed a state law requiring sesame to be disclosed on ingredient labels. The state's largest city, Chicago, is home to more than 4,500 food manufacturers and headquarters of many of the most powerful CPG businesses, so many of them have likely already been working toward the new federal labeling mandate.
Aside from the sesame-specific portion of the new law, the study could help the federal government take a more proactive approach to food allergy detection and prevention, as well as make everyone aware of the scope of the issue. According to FARE research published last year, one in four people in the U.S. — or 85 million people — is affected by food allergies. Even if the federal government's research runs over some of the same ground covered by institutional and private organizations, it will be harder for policymakers to overlook if it comes from the executive branch.
Determining the best way for the federal government to declare a new major allergen through regulation could also be helpful moving forward. While the legislative process did work in the case of sesame, it was subjected to the moving parts of Congress, which meant that minor changes to last year's bill kept it from reaching the president's desk four months ago. A clear process to make this sort of change through regulation would mean allergy policy — which so far has been nonpartisan — would not be delayed by more politically charged issues.