A new federal law requiring sesame to be listed as an allergen on food labels has unintended consequences: An increase in the number of products with the ingredient.
Food industry experts said the requirements are so strict that many manufacturers, especially bakers, find it simpler and less expensive to add sesame to a product – and label it – than to keep it away from other foods or equipment with sesame.
As a result, several companies—including national restaurant chains like Olive Garden, Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A, and bread makers that stock grocery shelves and serve schools—are adding sesame to products that didn’t have it before. While the practice is legal, consumers and advocates say it violates the spirit of the law that aims to make food safer for people with allergies.
“It was really exciting as a policy advocate and as a mom to get these labels,” said Naomi Seiler, a consultant with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, whose 9-year-old daughter, Zoe, is allergic to sesame. “Instead, companies deliberately add the allergen to the food.”
The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, requires that all food produced and sold in the U.S. must be labeled if it contains sesame, which is now the nation’s ninth-leading allergen. Sesame seeds can be found in obvious places, such as sesame seeds in hamburger buns. But it’s also an ingredient in many foods, from protein bars to ice cream, added to sauces, dips and salad dressings, and hidden in spices and flavorings.
Advocates for families dealing with allergies have lobbied for years to add sesame to the list of major allergens. Congress in 2004 created labeling requirements for eight: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soy.
More than 1.6 million people in the US are allergic to sesame, some so severely that they require injections of epinephrine, a drug used to treat life-threatening reactions. Sesame allergy cases have been on the rise in recent years along with an increasing number of foods containing the ingredient, said Dr. Ruchi Gupta, a pediatrician and director of the Food Allergy & Asthma Research Center at Northwestern University.
“Sesame is in so many things that people don’t really understand,” said Gupta, who called the move to add sesame to products “so disappointing.”
“In families that have a sesame allergy, it’s really hard,” she said.
Under the new law, enforced by the Food and Drug Administration, companies must now explicitly label sesame as an ingredient or note separately that a product contains sesame. In the US, ingredients are listed on product packaging in order of quantity. Sesame labeling has been required for years in other places, including Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.
If the ingredients do not include sesame, companies must take steps to prevent the food from coming into contact with any sesame, known as cross-contamination.
Add sesame flour
Food industry experts said the new requirements are not simple or practical.
“It’s like we suddenly asked the bakers to go to the beach and remove all the sand,” said Nathan Mirdamadi, a consultant with Commercial Food Sanitation, which advises the industry on food safety.
Some companies include statements on labels that say a food “may contain” a certain product or that the food is “produced in a facility” that also uses certain allergens. However, such statements are voluntary, not required, according to the FDA, and do not exempt the company from requirements to prevent cross-contamination.
Instead, some companies have taken a different approach. Olive Garden officials said that starting this week, the chain is adding “a minimal amount of sesame flour” to the company’s famous breadsticks “due to the potential for cross-contamination at the bakery.”
Chick-fil-A changed its white bread and multigrain brioche buns to include sesame seeds, while Wendy’s said the company has added sesame seeds to its French toast sticks and buns.
United States Bakery, which operates Franz Family Bakeries in California and the Northwest, informed customers in March that it would add a small amount of sesame flour to all buns and hamburger and hot dog buns “to mitigate the risk of unwanted actions on sesame products.”
While such actions do not violate the law, the FDA “does not support them,” the agency said in a statement.
“It would be more difficult for sesame-allergic customers to find foods that are safe to eat,” the statement said.
Some major companies have in the past added other allergens to products and updated their labels. In 2016, Kellogg added traces of peanut flour to some cookies and crackers, sparking protests.
That’s frustrating and scary for parents like Kristy Fitzgerald of Crookston, Minnesota. She learned last spring that Pan-O-Gold Baking Co., which supplies breads to schools, health centers and grocery stores across the Midwest, adds small amounts of sesame seeds to its products, including those served at her daughter’s school. Six-year-old Audrey, meanwhile, has overcome her sesame allergy.
Bob Huebner, director of food safety and quality assurance for Pan-O-Gold, told Fitzgerald in a series of emails that the company was forced to add sesame to the product and label.
“The unfortunate reality is that our equipment and bakeries are not set up for allergen cleanings that would be required to prevent cross-contamination with sesame, and it was not an option for us,” Huebner wrote in an email to Fitzgerald. Huebner responded to an email from the AP but did not respond to questions about the company’s practices.
Fitzgerald started an online petition to protest the move to add sesame.
“At some point, someone is going to feed an allergic kid sesame seeds,” Fitzgerald said. “It makes me think that the laws need to be changed to show that this is not an acceptable practice.”