The Consumer Affairs Agency has set up a panel on how to warn restaurant customers about ingredients that might cause allergies — a field not covered by current labeling regulations.
As it stands, children with allergies cannot go to fast food restaurants with friends or participate in school trips related to food, a representative of an advocacy group for food allergy sufferers said at the panel’s first meeting April 21.
The panel plans to compile an interim report by the end of the year. While this is good news for those with allergies, skeptics question how thoroughly labeling rules can be enforced at establishments with extensive menus that change frequently.
According to the education ministry, about 450,000 students at public primary and secondary schools in Japan have food allergies.
Prepackaged processed foods have been subject to allergy warnings since April 2001 to alert consumers to the presence of seven ingredients including eggs, milk and wheat. It also recommends warnings for 20 other allergens.
The panel is targeting restaurant dishes and unpackaged takeout or delivery meals, proposing to replace voluntary allergy warnings with new labeling regulations.
Such foods have been excluded from the labeling regimes to avoid placing a heavy burden on businesses that cook to order or change menus daily. Customers also have the option of asking what ingredients are used.
While the government has been relatively slow in addressing allergy labeling for restaurants, some family restaurants and industry bodies have been studying guidelines and working on menus that are palatable to allergy sufferers.
The Consumer Affairs Agency set up the panel after major department stores and hotels were found faking restaurant menus and food ingredients last year. Agency officials took note of cases in which processed meat containing wheat and milk were served as steak without allergy warnings.
The chairman of the panel, Motohiro Ebisawa, director of research at Sagamihara National Hospital, emphasized the need for allergy warnings.
“Patients cannot eat out or travel and their quality of life will suffer unless they are correctly informed,” he said.
Akihiro Kimura, an expert on allergy issues who runs Itayado Clinic in Kobe, said one option for the government would be to impose labeling requirements on businesses of a certain scale.”It’s also necessary to have a mechanism to require businesses to store meals for a period of time after serving them so that they can be used for investigation if someone develops allergic responses after eating them based on labeling information,” he said.