Lisa Gable is the chief executive officer of FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), the world’s leading food allergy advocacy organization and the world’s largest private funder of food allergy research.
There are 32 million Americans living with potentially life-threatening food allergies. The challenges they face each day have been made worse during the pandemic due to issues accessing safe, trusted and allergen-free food products. The New York Times recently wrote an article highlighting this dilemma.
We understand that COVID-19 has been an obstacle for food manufacturers too, as they work to feed more than 330 million Americans. With unanticipated shortages and supply chain disruptions, they need to ensure products are available to the public.
On Friday, May 22, the FDA issued guidance temporarily relaxing labeling standards without notification or engagement with the food allergy community. It’s imperative to have transparency when it comes to food labeling.
It came as a shock and elevated fear and anxiety by casting doubt on whether those with food allergies can safely and confidently purchase food if labels they have come to trust and rely on will not provide the necessary information regarding ingredients and substitutions. Transparency — a critically important component of the relationship between the brand and the consumer — disappeared overnight.
Those impacted by this guidance are a bigger audience than you may realize. While individuals who are diagnosed with food allergies make up to 32 million Americans, those who are making purchasing decisions for the food allergic and intolerant communities equates to more than 85 million—or roughly one in four Americans. In other words, if someone in a household has a sensitivity or allergy, other people living in that home won't buy a food or beverages with that ingredient.
While there are more than 170 food allergens, nine account for the vast majority of reactions and incidence in the United States: milk, eggs, wheat, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, soy and sesame. However, many with life-threatening food allergies suffer from multiple allergens — many of which are outside of the top nine — making access, choice, affordability and safety paramount.
With the FDA’s recent guidance in mind, there are factors brand managers and food companies need to know. They include the following:
The food allergy community is brand loyal. They purchase products they know are safe.
We pay attention to detail and spend three to five minutes or more reading a label before purchasing a product.
Food allergic consumers spend 5% more than average consumers on food, and 32% indicate they are willing to spend more for the highest quality food.
We have high repurchase rates of the exact same product.
Our community is scared that they can no longer trust their favorite brands, on which they have been dependent for some time. Now more than ever, it is essential to reassure your customers with clearer and more consistent communication, which educates and engages your consumer particularly around manufacturing safety. We understand that FDA guidance documents, by their nature, do not create mandates. However, from the perspective of those living with food allergies, the suggestions outlined in the guidance are not strong enough to reassure consumers. Because the guidance only has strong “recommendations,” it is difficult for consumers to feel confident that they will be alerted to changes that may impact allergens.
This presents a clear opportunity for consumer-packaged goods executives to take action now.
Just as you would communicate product recalls to your customers, we encourage companies to proactively communicate any ingredient changes using your brand website, digital properties and social media channels.
Highlight changes using product stickers and signage at point of sale.
Provide alerts in online shopping experiences.
Reinforce your commitment to this brand-loyal customer group through CEO communications to educate us all on which product categories are most likely to be impacted.
People with life-threatening food allergies and severe reactions to food is a rapidly growing market. FARE wants to work with the FDA and the food industry to partner on a public commitment to ensure transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can demonstrate market and community leadership by joining us and solving this problem quickly and together to protect the health and safety for those who are living with potentially life-threatening food allergies.