Although allergies affect many people worldwide, there are currently no universal allergy symbols. It is estimated that about 25 percent of Americans suffer from some kind of allergy, including environmental and food allergies. Many food manufacturers label common allergens in their products, but most restaurants do not list these on their menus.

Allergen Warnings

European visitors are often surprised to see the United States does not require restaurants to label their menus with allergen warnings. Allergists have often suggested that the U.S. also needs to have a warning symbol for foods and non-foods that contain common allergens.

In the U.K., all foods that contain 5 percent of a particular food must be included in the ingredients listed on the food. There are 12 major allergens, including fish, crustaceans, peanuts, milk, egg, tree nuts, gluten, sesame, soy, sulfites, mustard, and celery, which must be listed with other ingredients on the food label regardless of how much is in the food. Although labeling may be helpful in preventing allergic reactions, the problem of cross-contamination can still occur when particles of allergens remain on equipment used for “allergy-free” foods.

Encouraging Allergy Awareness

Several allergy prevention groups have already designed universal allergy symbols that can be used if countries like the U.S. adopt a warning system for people with allergies. There are also allergy alert symbols that can be purchased and sewn onto clothing or book bags. For example, one website sells 3-inch patches with warnings such as “Medical Alert – epinephrine auto-injector inside,” or “I Have Asthma – Inhaler Inside.”

In the U.S., many fast-food chains and sit-down restaurants have voluntarily labeled their foods with nutritional information. If peanuts or other potentially dangerous allergens are in a menu item, the restaurants state this clearly on their websites or menus. Many establishments have done this to promote sales and to build positive relationships with customers who have food allergies. Until we have universal allergy symbols on all food products in grocery stores, as well as in restaurants, people with food allergies must practice extreme caution before eating foods with unknown ingredients.

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