Advocates call for sesame allergen labeling

By:  Jennifer Reiley
CT Post

Lauren Solinsky, a college student from Weston, started to eat a salad a few years back and quickly realized that something was wrong. Three bites in, hives began to appear around her lips and mouth. A stomachache set in as her face and body began to swell. Solinsky, 19, was having an allergic reaction to a food that is not required to have allergy warning labeling – sesame.

Parents, schools and the general public are, by now, familiar with stories of children with peanut allergies suffering severe reactions. In the United States, the top eight allergens — including shellfish, nuts and milk — are labeled and regulated under Food and Drug Administration guidelines. But sesame, while affecting between 300,000 and 500,000 people in the United States, requires no such warning.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is trying to persuade the FDA to include sesame on the allergen list and require labeling.

Solinsky’s sesame allergy was discovered when she was two years old. A knife that cut food containing sesame was then used to cut her meal, and she had a reaction. While she has medicine today, the allergy is potentially life-threatening.

“It was just like everyone had described it too me, the feeling of doom, that this reaction could be ending my life,” Solinsky said, describing her most recent attack. “Fortunately, my medicine saved me, but this isn’t always the case for people with life threatening allergies — sometimes the medicine doesn’t work and we try to live our lives as normal as possible, but knowing that food, which is supposed to sustain life, can actually end it in our case.”

Solinsky, a junior at Pennsylvania State University and teen advocate for the Food Allergy Research and Education group, has to be cautious when going out to eat or even grocery shopping. Sesame is part of a wide range of food products — from candy to bagels — and is also used as a spice.

“I have a list of companies on my phone who have told me that they label for sesame, so I can trust their food products,” Solinsky said. “For any other food that I might want to buy I stand in the supermarket and call to see if I can get an answer about the ingredients. If they don't know, I do not purchase any of their food.”

Leah Pucciarelli of Trumbull said her daughter, who is now seven, was diagnosed with a sesame allergy when she was 18 months old. Pucciarelli said meals can be difficult to plan while also making an effort to give her daughter a well-balanced diet.

At school, Pucciarelli said the administrators and teachers are understanding of allergies, but focus mainly on nuts.

“All classrooms are nut free and there is a nut-free table in the cafeteria,” Pucciarelli said. “Sesame allergy is just not as well-known though, and there are no special measures in place.”

Last week Murphy and other members of Congress sent a letter to the FDA asking for sesame labeling to take uncertainty out of the food equation for people with allergies.

“Without required uniform labeling of the presence of sesame, consumers with sesame allergies, and the families of children with this serious allergy, have no way of knowing whether sesame is present in the foods they are eating, and cannot protect themselves or their family members from its potentially life-threatening consequences,” the letter reads.

Pucciarelli said she hopes the letter will encourage the FDA to review the allergen list and add sesame.

“I'd like to see sesame on food labels as an allergen and I'd like food manufacturers to treat it as an allergen, like the other top eight allergens, so that we can know for sure if it's present in the food and in the manufacturing facility,” Pucciarelli said.