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24-year-old Brooke Smallson from Los Angeles is just one of the 32 million Americans who live with potentially life-threatening food allergies.
“I’m actually only allergic to sesame seeds. I’m not allergic to sesame oil, which is actually kind of a blessing because sesame oil is a lot harder to detect,” said Smallson.
A million and a half people across the country, like Brooke, are allergic to sesame. They’ve gotten help in pushing the Food and Drug Administration to recognize it as a common allergy from Lisa Gable. She is the CEO of the group “Food Allergy Research and Education,” also known as FARE.
“We find solutions and therapies and diagnostics, and meet the needs of people with life threatening food allergies,” said Gable.
The full report with more insight from Smallson and Gable can be heard on the ABC News “Perspective” podcast.
There are many different types of food allergies, eight of which were recognized by the FDA as the most common in the U.S. But Gable says there really should be nine. Milk, eggs, peanuts, soy, wheat, tree-nuts, shellfish, fish and the addition of sesame.
The move for the FDA to recognize sesame as a common allergen was an important goal for FARE. Achieving it means the FDA must require plain-language labeling when sesame is used. Many don’t realize that when a food label reads “natural flavors” or “natural spices,” that can often mean sesame.
Smallson has experienced this many times throughout her life. One time, she ate french fries at a deli that triggered an allergic reaction.
“The french fries had a Mediterranean seasoning on them.”
She says there is a real need for clear labeling.
“If it had been listed somewhere along with the caution, contains wheat, eggs, dairy – if it was in one of those things right away jumping off the page, it wouldn’t have become such a stressful situation,” said Smallson.
In early March, FARE’s “Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education and Research Act,” also known as the FASTER Act, unanimously passed in the Senate. One month later, it passed in the House. Then on April 23rd, President Biden signed the bill into law. But it won’t take effect until January of 2023. That means for the next two years, labeling still won’t be mandated.
Smallson says sesame labeling would be especially helpful for those who are also allergic to sesame oil, because you can’t see it as easily as the seed.
“Sesame seeds, I can usually see them if they’re on top of something like as a garnish or if they’re mixed in.”
Gable agrees that the need for correct labeling is more important than ever. Food allergies have actually become more and more common since the late 1990s.
“You really find it rare to find people with multiple food allergies before 1998, the late 90s. Then all of the sudden we started seeing the disease rise with children, and now recently we are seeing more and more adults who’ve eaten something their entire life and yet they’ve developed anaphylaxis due to eating that food,” said Gable.
FARE hopes that talking about the issue will spread knowledge about the FASTER Act and the importance of labeling sesame on packaged foods. The group celebrated Food Allergy Awareness Week in mid-May with that exact goal. They’ve also implemented an allergy alert and ingredient notice to provide real time information on mislabeled and recalled food.
“When we are contacted and told that there was an accident made in the production process of a consumer product good of a food that’s sold in a package, then we immediately put that alert out,” said Gable.
With the roll-out of the COVID vaccine, we’ve heard concerns from the allergy community about allergic reactions to the shot. But gable says doctors have not seen many issues with food allergy patients taking the vaccine.
“Right now what our doctors are saying is that you’re better off taking the vaccine if you can in your doctor’s office, however they are not really seeing a great deal of risk associated with it.”
She does suggest that patients consult with medical professionals about any specific conditions ahead of their vaccine appointments.
“Recognizing that it is a common allergen might get more people recognizing that as well and increase awareness,” said Smallson.
Smallson and others with sesame allergies like her will be counting down the days until the faster act takes effect in 2023.
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