- Since it is so difficult to remove all traces of sesame from baking equipment, many commercial bakers began adding sesame flour to their products after the seed became classified as a major allergen because they were concerned with “consumer safety, not cost savings,” American Bakers Association President and CEO W. Eric Dell said in a letter to eight members of Congress sent this week.
- In an update to its allergen policy, the FDA published a draft compliance policy guide this week that could allow more flexibility in working with manufacturers with products that may come in contact with an allergen. The policy doesn’t directly address sesame.
- Since late last year, allergy and consumer advocates have been reporting that bakery companies were adding sesame to baked goods and including it on ingredient labels to avoid new requirements that took effect on Jan. 1. The group of eight lawmakers sent a letter to ABA earlier this month condemning the practice.
When sesame officially became the ninth recognized major allergen in 2021, consumer advocates felt they had achieved a victory. But difficulties companies faced in complying with the law have created more challenges for consumers who cannot eat sesame.
Sesame, a common ingredient in some baked goods, is unlike most of the other top allergens — milk, eggs, soy, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish and shellfish. While it’s easy to manage where milk or nuts may cross contaminate, sesame is small, scatters easily and is difficult to control in a baking environment.
The new law requires that if a product is sesame-free, the manufacturing facilities in which it is made must be carefully cleaned to avoid cross-contamination. Because of the challenges involved with taking that step, some manufacturers are now adding a small amount of sesame — either as seeds or a ground flour — to all products so sesame is accurately disclosed as an ingredient on their labels.
However, some consumers were not aware of these ingredient changes and found themselves unintentionally purchasing and consuming products that provoked allergic reactions.
The lawmakers’ letter to the ABA says this practice “undermines the trust that poeple with food allergies place in the food industry,” and “undercut[s] the purpose and intent of the” law. Consumer lives were put at risk, the letter says.
Dell’s letter outlines the problems bakers face when trying to clean facilities in order to eliminate all traces of sesame seeds. Some members of the group found there was no way to completely eliminate the risk of sesame cross-contamination since their bakeries also handled products with the seeds, he wrote. He said it had nothing to do with not wanting to spend the money to clean facilities.
“The bakers who determined the need to add sesame to their formulas did so only after exhaustive evaluations, application of state-of-the-art [current good manufacturing practices] that still resulted in sesame traces, reconsideration of their product offerings, and changing their production practices,” the letter states.
Dell’s letter puts the blame on FDA regulations, which do not allow for exceptions for potential small amounts of sesame. Even if a product label says it “may contain” trace amounts of an allergen, Dell wrote, undeclared allergens are the top cause of FDA-initiated recalls. He urged the lawmakers to call on FDA to use its authority to set minimum thresholds for amounts of sesame in food products — the maximum amount that most people with allergies could tolerate without adverse reactions.
The letter to the lawmakers states that ABA representatives have had discussions with FDA allergen experts on risk and mitigation strategies for sesame.
In an email, an FDA spokesperson said the agency is working on several fronts to better understand the issue and its underlying factors. They have met with academic experts about the cross-contamination challenges faced by the bakery industry in dealing with sesame, as well as the ABA to understand members’ perspectives. FDA is also evaluating information in commercial labeling databases to assess how widespread the sesame issue is.
While the FDA’s draft policy compliance guide does not directly address manufacturers adding sesame to products, a statement that accompanied its release says, “The FDA recognizes that this practice may make it more difficult for sesame-allergic consumers to find foods that are safe for them to consume-an outcome that the FDA does not support.”