Sesame (Sesamum indicum) is an ancient crop cultivated for its edible oilseeds. With shades ranging from white, yellow and dark brown to black, sesame seeds differ in colour, taste, and nutritional profile. One study of sesame seed coat colours found its protein content increased as the colour of the seed coat deepened.
Belonging to the plant family Pedaliaceae, and grown in many tropical and sub-tropical regions, sesame is also a major global agricultural crop, with almost six million tons produced globally in 2017, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Allergic reactions to sesame are widespread and reports of adverse reactions have been documented since the 1950s, with the first report on sesame seed and oil allergy written in the US and dating back to this time.
Over 50 years later, the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act, a federal law passed in 2021 in the US, meant sesame joined eight major food allergens identified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Together, the nine major food allergens cause the majority of serious food allergic reactions in the US.
FASTER Act fail: More sesame is the easiest way to comply for some food manufacturers
The FASTER Act is not only limited to updating food labelling but also involves additional food safety control measures. The FDA requires food manufacturers using sesame to put procedures in place to protect against cross-contamination and thoroughly clean manufacturing equipment. Instead of conducting sanitation in compliance with FDA requirements, some food manufacturers are adding small amounts of sesame flour to previously sesame-free products to comply.
This practice of adding sesame flour, without the promise of cleaning their equipment and wholly guaranteeing it is free of sesame as the FASTER Act requires, is considered the best approach by some food manufacturers. Furthermore, under federal labelling guidelines, only products that contain sesame can be labelled as such, leading to some manufacturers to intentionally add sesame and label it.
Sarah Sorscher, director of regulatory affairs at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), addressed a petition to the FDA requesting that the commissioner issue a notice to manufacturers adding sesame, but is yet to receive a response. Food companies identifying those risks are making the problem worse by adding more allergens, she said.
“It’s crazy that the baking industry would respond this way to a straightforward labelling requirement. This is not the kind of care we expect and deserve from the companies that feed us. Not only are they cutting corners on quality control, they are also breaking federal food safety rules: under FDA rules, when a manufacturer identifies a risk of allergen cross-contamination, they have responsibility to mitigate the risk,” she said.
With the addition of sesame flour, an added allergen not easily seen, foods that have been safe for allergy sufferers are now potentially life-threatening.
“This move sets a dangerous precedent for American families with food allergies. The labelling rules are no different from sesame than for any other major food allergen. If manufacturers get the message that they can simply add the allergen to their products as a way of avoiding costlier efforts to clean for allergens, the practice could easily spread,” added Sorscher.
Allergen adding: A uniquely US approach
Allergic reactions to sesame have been widely documented around the world. The EU, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, for instance, all require sesame to be labelled as an allergen and enforce food safety regulations to protect allergic consumers.
Is adding an allergen a uniquely American bakery approach to comply with new rules and regulations?
Jason Linde, senior vice-president of government and community affairs at Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), a consumer group that lobbied at Congress for the FASTER Act to be passed, said it was disappointed that trusted food companies would engage in this practice.
“It is inconceivable to the food allergy community that some of the very same baking companies that operate in Toronto, Canada, have complied with the country’s labelling requirement of sesame since 1999 and cleaned their lines, while bakeries in Toledo – a mere 287 miles away – cannot.”
“It boils down to greed and simply not caring enough to do the right thing, especially when we see other American bakeries and some of their biggest customers, like McDonald’s, follow the spirit and letter of the new law,” he said.
With approximately 1.6 million Americans allergic to sesame, and the seeds found in hundreds of food products including salad dressing, sweets, and protein bars, it is promising that most manufacturers are complying with the law, Linde said. However, a solution will be needed to solve this issue quickly to uphold manufacturing food safety standards and protect those with sesame allergies.
“The easiest one would be for these baking companies to keep their word as they promised they would shortly after the FASTER Act was signed into law,” he added. “In addition, the FDA may decide that this practice violates the intent of the FASTER Act, and that Congress could once again get involved and legislate against this behaviour.”