Ministry to Bolster Labeling Rules for Food Allergens

Health Ministry pushing legislation after death of Hen Efrat from severe nut allergy at Tel Aviv restaurant last week; ministry wants allergy-causing ingredients to be displayed more prominently.

After a 26-year-old woman died of a severe nut allergy last Thursday because the chocolate she ate at a restaurant contained nuts, the Health Ministry has decided to push legislation requiring food packages to list allergy-causing ingredients more prominently, and may require restaurant menus to do so as well.

Hen Efrat, a resident of Eilat, was dining with friends at a Tel Aviv restaurant. They ordered a Belgian waffle with ice cream and chocolate after the staff promised her the chocolate did not contain nuts.

Existing regulations already require food labels to list allergy-causing ingredients, but the ministry wants these ingredients to be displayed more prominently. Today, the label must simply list the ingredients.

The European Union, United States and Australia already require potentially allergenic ingredients to be listed prominently on labels, the ministry said.

And while the ministry does not intend to require restaurants or coffee houses to list such ingredients on their menus for now, it said it will consider the matter. Currently, no country in the world has such a rule:

The ministry is also considering publishing a special brochure for consumers who suffer from food allergies to instruct them on how to prevent allergic reactions when eating out.

Three to six percent of children and one to three percent of adults have some kind of food allergy or food-related problem such as lactose intolerance.

The most problematic foods are milk and soy products, eggs, peanuts, sesame, various kinds of nuts, fish and seafood. In addition, certain legumes such as lentils are problematic, as are certain summer and tropical fruits.

Only a very small proportion of people - about one percent of all those with food allergies - face life-threatening reactions.

For years, food companies have pressed the Health Ministry not to require prominent labeling of allergenic products, and so far, the ministry has acceded.

"There is a conflict between the need to label allergenic foods and the need not to make it harder for those who suffer from allergies," said Dr. Menachem Rotem, head of the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Service at Ha'emek Hospital in Afula. "Regulations on the matter also need to protect food manufacturers to some extent. Otherwise, the manufacturers will tend to label too many foods, and there will be very few foods for people who suffer from allergies to eat."

On Sunday, MK and physician Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al ) introduced a bill requiring prominent labeling of allergens. The bill would also make restaurants liable for harm to customers arising from allergic reactions.