Progress, then problems. Did you know that sesame seed is now considered one of the top allergens? The United States Congress added sesame seed to the list of major allergens in 2021 as part of the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (ASTER) Act, and manufacturers were required to disclose sesame seed on products beginning in 2023. The hope of successful labeling was short-lived, however, because manufacturers whose products did not contain sesame began intentionally adding it to products rather than cleaning equipment to ensure there would be no cross-contact with sesame.
Needless to say, that eliminated numerous items that were previously safe to eat not only in grocery items purchased by families, but also in products purchased by restaurants for their use for sandwiches and bakery items. Manufacturers deliberately adding sesame allergen to products to make them “off limits” was not foreseen by Congress: it was assumed that manufacturers would clean equipment and control for cross-contact as they did for other allergens using HACCP.
Potential Solutions? Since the community of those with sesame allergy is relatively small, the idea succeeding with a legislative solution seemed unrealistic. There was an avenue that could influence manufacturers - the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But the FDA could not exercise any persuasion towards manufacturers unless Congress directed the agency to do so via law-making, or FDA was persuaded to do so by consumers and food safety professionals through proposals adopted by the Conference for Food Protection (CFP).
CFP is a gathering of food safety scientists, inspectors and trainers from U.S. states and territories; food and restaurant businesses; consumers; academic institutions; representatives from each state’s department of health and each state’s department of agriculture; and representatives from FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). CFP meets every two years to discuss and debate food safety policy proposals. Proposals are then discussed and debated, and if passed by vote, CFP then forwards those proposals to the FDA: FDA usually adopts these recommendations from CFP.
In hopes that bringing the issue before CFP would initiate dialogue on the topic within FDA and with manufacturers, a handful of advocates scattered across the U.S. sent a half-dozen issue proposals to CFP prior to its 2023 meeting. At the very least this was guaranteed to raise the issue at the CFP - in hopes that discussion would, within a few years, lead to solutions about sesame cross-contact or at the very least some sort of compromise from manufacturers.
In addition to successfully getting onto the agenda through these advocates’ issue proposals, Massachusetts attorney and national food allergy expert Laurel Francoeur https://www.theallergylawyer.com/about volunteered to attend CFP in person during its 2023 meeting in Texas and to testify about the sesame issue when it was raised during CFP’s Council deliberations. Former CFP member from AFAA, Nona Narvaez, https://www.startribune.com/minnesota-mom-works-to-take-fear-out-of-food-allergies/435934923/ facilitated email introductions between Francoeur and members of CFP, and guided her through the CFP process (which is very much like the legislative process), and in real-time kept abreast of the changes in proposals’ language and made recommendations about coalition building with other CFP members.
The sesame advocates hoped for at least one of the following things:
- a letter from CFP to FDA about the seriousness of the sesame issue (with the hope that the FDA would then issue an advisory to food establishments to warn them about sesame cross-contact in products that they purchase and/or sell and/or create a guidance document about sesame for manufacturers);
- FDA creation of a definition for “may contain” on product labels (something that has been wished for by consumers since 2005);
- re-creation of a CFP Food Allergen Committee (which would guarantee that the sesame issue - and other food allergy topics - would continue to be discussed).
What happened? Being realistic, the sesame advocates knew (because this was their initial effort in advocating for a policy solution through CFP) that succeeding in any of these goals was unlikely. “It is incredibly unusual to achieve policy goals the first year a topic comes up,” explained Narvaez. Nevertheless the small group hoped that their efforts would bring attention to the sesame problem and elicit continued discussion.
At the CFP meeting Francoeur connected with other CFP members and garnered their support, and spoke to the sesame issue in the limited time she was given to testify before the Councils. She reported “[our issues] are getting a lot of attention - supposedly the sesame issue is the talk of the conference!”
An immediate success was the adoption of the proposal to have CFP write a letter to FDA about the sesame issue. Following further discussions with stakeholders into the next day, the proposal to recreate the Allergen Committee was adopted - but with the additional success of the adoption of tasking the committee to work on creating a definition of “may contain” for product labeling. Incredibly all three of the sesame advocates’ targets were achieved!
In more good news, Francoeur was appointed as one of the 26 voting members to the renewed Allergen Committee. Joining her is food safety and Minnesota-based food allergen-safety instructor and author Michelle Hill, and the committee will be co-chaired by Betsy Craig of MenuTrinfo and Nicole Arnold of Ohio State University. Here is a link detailing what the Allergen Committee is mandated to do before the 2025 CFP meeting.