FDA Announces Food Label Flexibility During COVID-19

For families with food allergies, reading labels is a lifestyle but doctors are warning a change to labeling guidelines could put some people at risk of an allergic reaction.

COVID-19 closed processing plants and affected farms, causing a strain on the food supply chain. In response,

the Food and Drug Administration threw them a lifeline, making labeling requirements more relaxed and allowing for some ingredient substitutes.

The eight most common allergens can’t be adjusted, but the devil is in the details with other foods and producers don’t have to note the change — for example, it could be switching sunflower oil for canola oil.

“When you eat a new food or a food you haven’t had in a long time, you can have a reaction,” said Pediatric Allergist and Immunologist Dr. Vivian Hernandez-Trujillo.

She warns the risk increases as schools get food items in bulk, so it’s important for families to have an action plan.

“We can’t predict when a reaction will happen. Reactions happen and unfortunately, accidents happen. So, be prepared 100% of the time, no matter what.”

You can cut down on chances of having an allergic reaction by following these recommendations:

• Dr. Hernandez-Trujillo recommends kids always have EpiPens ready and let teachers, principals, school nurses or any caregivers know about their allergies and action plan
• Stick with food brands you know and trust
• Call food manufacturers directly to ask about ingredient changes

• Check the FDA website frequently for updates, as no expiration date was given with the initial change announcement

The FDA says the goal in doing this is to provide regulatory flexibility, where appropriate, to help minimize the impact of supply chain disruptions on product availability associated with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

First, the FDA is providing flexibility for manufacturers to make minor formulation changes in certain circumstances without making conforming label changes, such as making a change to product ingredients, without updating the ingredient list on the packaged food when such a minor change is made. For purposes of this guidance, minor formulation changes should be consistent with the general factors listed below, as appropriate:

• Safety: the ingredient being substituted for the labeled ingredient does not cause any adverse health effect (including food allergens, gluten, sulfites, or other foods known to cause sensitivities in some people, for example, glutamates);
• Quantity: generally present at 2 percent or less by weight of the finished food;
• Prominence: the ingredient being omitted or substituted for the labeled ingredient is not a major ingredient in the product;
• Characterizing Ingredient: the ingredient being omitted or substituted for the labeled ingredient is not a characterizing ingredient; for example, omitting raisins, a characterizing ingredient in raisin bread;
• Claims: an omission or substitution of the ingredient does not affect any voluntary nutrient content or health claims on the label;  and

• Nutrition/Function: an omission or substitution of the labeled ingredient does not have a significant impact on the finished product, including nutritional differences or functionality.

The FDA is also providing temporary flexibility to the vending machine industry and will not object if covered operators do not meet vending machine labeling requirements to provide calorie information for foods sold in the vending machines at this time.  As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, vending machine operators may need to change business practices, and there may be temporary disruptions in the supply chain for foods sold in vending machines.  Where possible, FDA encourages covered vending machine operators to continue to comply with the vending machine labeling requirements.

Other temporary flexibilities that FDA has issued address nutrition labeling on food packages, menu labeling, packaging and labeling of shell eggs and the distribution of eggs to retail locations.

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