Chick-fil-A and other restaurants are adding sesame — the ninth-most-common food allergy among children and adults in the US — to products that didn’t previously have it, angering those with sesame allergies.
They say the move is an effort to avoid complying with the intent of the FASTER Act, which goes into effect on Jan. 1.
The FASTER Act, which stands for the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research Act, was signed into law on April 23 and will require sesame to be labeled as an allergen on packaged food products beginning in the new year. The law also declared sesame as the ninth major food allergen recognized by the US, which becomes official on Jan. 1.
By adding sesame to products that didn’t previously contain it, companies may be able to skirt manufacturing processes that would ensure production facilities are clean enough to avoid cross-contact with the allergen, according to Jason Linde, the senior vice president of government and community affairs for FARE, a nonprofit working to increase food allergy awareness. (Cross-contact differs from cross-contamination, which is when bacteria or viruses enter food during preparation and storage, sometimes causing illness.)
Linde told BuzzFeed News that the nonprofit is disappointed that companies seem to be defeating the purpose of the FASTER Act, potentially putting millions of people’s lives at risk.
More than 30 people told BuzzFeed News that they have had to learn via Facebook groups and other unofficial routes that many of their “safe” foods will now contain sesame.
“On behalf of the more than 32 million Americans with life-threatening food allergies and the approximately 1.6 million Americans allergic to sesame, we are disappointed and frustrated that previously trusted companies would rather add small amounts of sesame flour to their bakery products than comply with the intent of the FASTER Act, clean their lines, and safely feed members of our community,” Linde wrote in an email. “By taking this approach, they have turned their backs on some of their most loyal customers by ruining previously safe food, and made life even more difficult for our families.”
General labeling laws already require sesame to be included on ingredient lists, but the new law will make it more clear if sesame is found in flavors or spice blends and in food names uncommon to some people in the US, such as tahini, which is made from sesame seeds.
The FDA told BuzzFeed News that people should “proceed with caution” when buying food products in early January because the new law does not require food products that were already in interstate commerce before 2023 to list sesame as an allergen on labels. Food that is already on store shelves also does not need to be removed or relabeled. Therefore people should contact companies or manufacturers directly to learn if certain products contain, or potentially contain sesame, the federal agency said.
Even trace amounts of sesame can sometimes cause allergic reactions.
Cross-contact occurs during the manufacturing process when an allergen from one food product is transferred to another that does not contain it; the allergen cannot be eliminated during the cooking process. Not everyone is sensitive to allergens present at these extremely low levels, but many people are, and some may experience anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction.
Families dealing with a sesame allergy already have to play dangerous guessing games when eating at certain restaurants or buying certain foods, avoid entire categories of food altogether, or spend weeks going back and forth begging companies to disclose their ingredients and any potential changes with them. Not to mention that many already make most of their food at home to minimize their family’s risks. The inability to tell when sesame was in certain foods was the main impetus for the FASTER Act.
Dr. Jose Arias, an allergy and clinical immunologist and associate professor at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, said he used to recommend Chick-fil-A to his patients because it uses highly refined peanut oil, which is safe for people with peanut allergies, but now he doesn’t feel comfortable recommending the restaurant.
Arias called the news “very disappointing.”
Now, many people fear that other restaurants or national food producers will follow suit and add sesame to their products.
Olive Garden, for example, confirmed with BuzzFeed News that because the FDA recognized sesame as a major allergen, it has added sesame flour (“less than 2%” according to the company) to its famous breadsticks due to the potential for cross-contact in its bakeries.
Olive Garden's allergen guide does not list sesame as an ingredient in its breadsticks as of Dec. 14. The guide also says the restaurant cannot eliminate the risk of cross-contact between allergens because of its cooking method.
The industrywide change could impact school lunches and severely limit food options in grocery stores.
Many members of the American Bakers Association, a trade association, provide baked goods to schools. One major supplier is Pan-O-Gold; according to reports and an online petition, the company has said it plans on adding sesame flour to all its bread and bun dough recipes. (This company mostly supplies institutions in the Midwest.)
The American Bakers Association has not responded to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment.
In a statement sent to BuzzFeed News, a Chick-fil-A spokesperson said that the company sources bread from multiple suppliers across the country and because of shared production lines within those facilities, they “cannot ensure that our menu items are sesame-free.”
As a result, the company’s white bun and multigrain brioche bun now contain sesame flour as of Dec. 12. Chick-fil-A’s flaxseed flour flatbread and Cool Wrap have always contained sesame, the spokesperson said.
BuzzFeed News visited a Chick-fil-A restaurant in New York City and found a letter posted near the food pickup area that noted the change in English and Spanish.
“Food safety and quality are our top priorities. We take great care in adhering to stringent food safety procedures,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “Customers with a sesame allergy may prefer to order a gluten-free bun, which does not contain a sesame ingredient. Bread products on the breakfast menu, including the tortilla, English muffin, mini yeast rolls, and biscuit, are also free of sesame ingredients.”
The FDA did not respond to a BuzzFeed News question about whether it will take action against companies that opt to add sesame to their food rather than do what they can to avoid cross-contact between allergens. However, an FDA spokesperson told us that the agency has “made clear that labeling is not to be used instead of current good manufacturing practices with regard to allergens.”
“There are FDA regulations that require adequate control of allergen cross-contact,” the spokesperson said. “In other words, manufacturers cannot just place an advisory statement on a product without first taking measures to prevent allergen cross-contact to the best degree possible.”
Some of those measures include separating allergens from non-allergens in facilities, scheduling products with allergens at the end of daily production cycles, and sanitizing and cleaning equipment after processing products containing allergens.
Lauren, 35, who told BuzzFeed News she preferred to keep her last name private, has a son who has a sesame allergy and experiences anaphylactic responses to it, as well as peanuts and tree nuts. She told us that her family has eaten Chick-fil-A at least once a week for the last three years during movie nights and that she has had the food catered to her son’s school parties. Her son’s last anaphylactic reaction about three years ago has left her with PTSD and anxiety.
Lauren said that the general manager at her local Chick-fil-A told her that the restaurant cannot guarantee any product is safe from cross-contact, although the company’s website says it prepares foods “following procedures to prevent allergen cross-contact, but products containing wheat, egg, soy, and milk are all made in our kitchens.”
When she inquired about “clean gloves,” she was told that the manager’s staff “would not be doing this,” Lauren wrote in an email. “Fun fact: I’ve written ‘clean gloves, food allergies’ on every single order for over three years and was told by staff that this was followed.” (Requesting that restaurant workers wear clean gloves when handling food is a common approach for people wanting to avoid an allergen.)
“I am incredibly heartbroken for so many people right now. This, for a lot of us, was the only restaurant we felt comfortable eating out at,” Lauren said. “This is laziness and a complete CYA move on Chick-fil-A's part and I am so disappointed.”
A spokesperson for Wendy's said on Dec. 16 that the company updated its nutrition and allergen information “within the past week” to include sesame in advance of the FASTER Act taking effect, and that the change applies to all restaurant locations in the US.
"We take food safety and allergen matters very seriously," the company said in a statement. "On our current national menu in the U.S., our Homestyle French Toast Sticks and premium and value buns contain sesame flour as an ingredient. Our menu evolves frequently, and our most up to date ingredient and allergen information can be found on Wendys.com and within the Wendy’s mobile app.”
Its website says that many products, such as the Jr. Cheeseburger, Baconator, and Crispy Chicken Sandwich, contain sesame or sesame flour and list sesame as an allergen. Other products, like chicken nuggets, have a warning in the ingredients list that says “cooked in the same oil as menu items that contain wheat, milk, egg, soy, sesame, and fish.”
Sources told BuzzFeed News that they have never seen sesame associated with any of the Wendy's products until now, checking the company’s website only after private discussions with other “allergy people” revealed the changes.
Further, on each product page, Wendy's mentions: “We provide known instances of allergens; however, cross-contact is possible due to common handling and preparation areas in our restaurants. We are unable to guarantee that any menu item can be completely free of allergens. Customers with allergies and sensitivities should exercise judgment when ordering.”
Adrienne Cardon, 39, and mother to an 8-year-old with more than a dozen food allergies, including sesame, that can cause anaphylaxis, wonders how differently everything would have played out if companies announced they were adding peanuts to their products. She said Wendy’s is the only fast-food restaurant where her son can eat.
“This is the opposite of corporate responsibility. This is the opposite of inclusiveness. This is corporate laziness and malfeasance,” Cardon said. “Can not a multibillion-dollar corporation bake their own buns in a safe environment, or find a partner who can?”
Cardon admits that Wendy’s is a convenience for her family, rather than a need, but she worries about families that will be disproportionately affected by this move, including those who depend on fast food for their children’s nutritional needs.
“It’s 2022! We can make meat-free ‘meat,’ eggless ‘omelets,’ gluten-free baguettes, and dairy-free ice cream, but these fast-food titans can’t find a baker who can bake a sesame-free bun?”
Laura Smathers, 40, has two daughters with life-threatening food allergies, one of them being sesame. She said finding safe places to eat out “has been a monumental task over the last 13 years.” She depends heavily on Chick-fil-A, especially while traveling, so much so that she’s shown up at countless restaurants and even weddings with bags of Chick-fil-A for her kids to avoid allergic reactions.
“Needless to say, no one in our community could have ever imagined this new law to cause a devastating blow instead of the reassurance and clarity we were seeking,” Smathers said. “This response to the labeling law is inexcusable. It is heartbreaking that nothing had to change with these recipes, yet these companies are electing to endanger the millions of Americans with sesame allergies and make their establishments and products something we have to avoid to keep our loved ones safe.
“It has been a devastating loss, to say the least,” she said.
This article has been updated to clarify when Wendy's updated its nutrition and allergen information.
This article has been updated to include a statement from the FDA.