Kids With Food Allergies the Newest Victims of COVID-19?

Gary J. Stadtmauer, MD


June 08, 2020

Food insecurity is not knowing how you will get your next meal. This pandemic has led to a lot of it, especially as a result of massive unemployment. Now imagine being in that situation with a food-allergic child. It would be frightening.

There is always a level of anxiety for parents of food-allergic children, but the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-mandated labeling of food allergens has helped to allay some of those concerns. Shopping can feel safer, even if it's not foolproof.

Now, that fear for the safety of food-allergic children is going to be compounded by the FDA's latest announcement, made at the behest of the food industry.

Disruptions in the food supply chain due to the COVID-19 pandemic have created some problems for the food industry. The industry sought—and received—relief from the FDA; they are now allowing some ingredient substitutions without mandating a change in labeling. These changes were made without opportunity for public comment, according to the FDA, because of the exigency of the situation. Furthermore, the changes may stay in effect for an indeterminate period of time after the pandemic is deemed under control.

Labeling of gluten and the major eight allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, milk, eggs, soy, wheat, fish, and crustacean shellfish) cannot change under the new guidelines. The FDA also advised "consideration" of major food allergens recognized in other countries (sesame, celery, lupin, buckwheat, molluscan shellfish, and mustard). Of these, lupin is known to cross-react with peanut, and sesame seed allergy is increasingly prevalent. In fact, the FDA has considered adding it to the list of major allergens.

Meanwhile, according to this temporary FDA policy, substitutions should be limited to no more than 2% of the weight of the final product unless it is a variety of the same ingredient. The example provided is substitution of one type of mushroom for another, but even that could be an issue for the rare patient. And what if this is misinterpreted—as will surely happen somewhere—and one seed is substituted for another?

A friend of mine is a pediatrician and mother of a child who is allergic to sesame, peanuts, tree nuts, and garbanzo beans. Naturally, she had grave concerns about these changes. She also wondered what the liability would be for the food manufacturing company in the current situation despite the FDA notice, which seems like a valid point. It is worth noting that at the very top of this FDA notice are the words "Contains Nonbinding Recommendations," so manufacturers may want to think twice about how they approach this. A minority of companies have pledged to relabel foods if necessary. Meanwhile, without any alert in advance, it is now up to patients and their physicians to sort out the attendant risks.

The FDA should have advised or mandated that food manufacturers give notice to online and physical retailers of ingredient changes. A simple sign in front of a display or alert online would be a very reasonable solution and pose no burden to those involved. It should be self-evident that mistakes always happen, especially under duress, and that the loosening of these regulations will have unintended consequences. To the severe problem of food insecurity, we can add one more concern for the parents of allergic children: food-allergen insecurity.

Gary J. Stadtmauer, MD, is an allergist-immunologist in New York City. His areas of clinical interest include asthma, eczema, chronic cough, and sinusitis. He has been a Medscape contributor since 2014.

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