FDA Food Labeling Changes During COVID-19: Here's What Parents Need to Know

The FDA is relaxing some food labeling requirements in light of the pandemic. But these changes could be risky for those with food allergies. Here's how to keep your kids safe.

Salted Peanuts in a Bowl on a checkered tablecloth
Photo: Tim Grist Photography/Getty Images

With disruptions to supply chains during the pandemic, some manufacturers are having a harder time finding ingredients they need and may want to make substitutions. New FDA guidance lets the food industry temporarily make "minor" formulation changes without updating the product label. In other words, the ingredients may change, but the ingredient list on the package doesn't have to.

The FDA says the formulation changes have to meet certain criteria: The changes cannot suddenly introduce one of the top eight allergens (milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans). The swap can't be a major ingredient (it must be 2 percent or less by weight), and it can't significantly change the nutrition of the product.

For example, a company can swap out certain oils, like canola oil instead of sunflower oil. If peppers aren't available for a product that contains multiple veggies, the company can leave them out. A manufacturer can also substitute different kinds of spices if the ingredient list includes the generic term "spice." And again, these can all be made without changing the ingredient list or food label.

The FDA says the relaxed rules will stay in place for at least the remainder of the pandemic—but possibly longer.

FDA Temporary Food Labeling Risks

Even though the new guidance excludes major allergens, some food allergy advocates are still worried these loosened laws are too risky. The new guidance "raises major anxieties for the food allergy community," according to a statement from Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), and "casts doubt on whether those with food allergies can safely and confidently purchase food if labels will not provide necessary information regarding ingredients."

Food allergies affect 32 million Americans, including 1 in 13 children. Many people are also allergic to foods and ingredients outside the top eight, and the new FDA guidance has too many loopholes, warns David Bloom, CEO of SnackSafely.com. For example, though the regulations point out that foods like sesame, buckwheat, and mustard are recognized as major allergens in other parts of the world, the FDA only says manufacturers "should avoid" substitutions that could cause safety issues. That's "dangerously vague," says Bloom.

Another possible issue is around "highly-refined" oils, says Bloom. The FDA doesn't consider oils like highly-refined peanut or soybean oil to be allergenic because they've been heavily processed and stripped of protein. Yet some people with allergies still react to them and avoid products that contain them. The new guidance allows the swap of highly-refined peanut oil for canola oil without a change on the ingredient list, putting some people at risk for reactions.

FARE says the FDA should require that food manufacturers let consumers know about any changes to products through their websites, social media pages, retail sites like Amazon, or stickers placed on the product. SnackSafely.com is asking the FDA to cancel the guidance until the issues can be addressed and the food allergy community has time to weigh in.

What Parents Can Do

Stick to brands you already know and trust, recommends Bloom. Also contact manufacturers to make sure the label accurately reflects the ingredients. And of course, always have epinephrine auto-injectors with you.

If you or your children are part of the food allergy community, FARE also encourages you to make your voice heard by leaving the FDA a comment about the new guidance.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor for Parents magazine and a registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a no-judgements zone about feeding a family. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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