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Increase of sesame in food prompts heightened concern for those with severe allergies

It is crucial to check food labels for potential allergens, as sesame has been added to some products recently, a move which advocates for those with food allergies have sharply criticized. (Photo: NBC Montana)
It is crucial to check food labels for potential allergens, as sesame has been added to some products recently, a move which advocates for those with food allergies have sharply criticized. (Photo: NBC Montana)
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A recent near-death experience for a Butte resident inspired her to advocate for people with severe food allergies.

Eddi Walker wants people to be aware of the potentially deadly risks of sesame and why more of it is showing up in bread products across the country.

Walker is a longtime and active member of the Butte community. She’s a full-time substitute teacher, who finds time for volunteering, coaching Special Olympics and one of her favorite pastimes -- running.

“I want to be able to continue running as long as I can. There’s a lady that’s 101 setting track records. I want to be that lady. I want to be 101 and still running,” said Walker, who runs every other day.

But her fulfilling life in the Mining City nearly came to a tragic end while she was eating food catered by Pork Chop John’s while volunteering at the state track tournament.

“I took two bites, and I knew immediately something was wrong, because my lips started getting tingly and bumpy,” said Walker.

Walker is allergic to sesame, and the food she ate sent her into anaphylactic shock.

Her throat started to close up. A trainer injected her with an EpiPen, then she went to the hospital.

Walker’s condition improved enough that she returned to the tournament to continue handing out medals, but the effects of her reaction lingered -- making it feel like her throat was closing again -- days later, while grocery shopping.

“I don’t know much about it, if it’s each time I get something, I get worse. But it’s frightening, because I don’t want to die that way,” said Walker. “And there’s nothing you can do, because it starts from your stomach up, so they can’t even do a (tracheotomy) if you don’t get (immediate) help.”

“Every reaction has the potential to be worse the next time. And that’s what people need to remember. They’ve just got to be ready for it,” said Chad Silk, battalion chief with the Butte Fire Department.

We reached out to Pork Chop John’s, and a representative told us they were not aware that sesame was added to the buns they use until Walker’s allergic reaction. They said they now have signs posted warning customers at both of their restaurants.

Walker is one of more than 1.5 million Americans allergic to sesame.

A federal law -- called the FASTER Act -- went into effect this year to improve food labeling. It requires any retail food product that contains sesame or could be cross-contaminated to be clearly marked.

Some say the measure is producing an unintended effect. Bakers are now putting sesame into more of their products and labeling them instead of working to prevent cross-contamination -- a move that cuts costs.

Food safety advocates say the development isn’t trickling down to consumers -- catching those with allergies off-guard.

“They didn’t communicate that information to Americans or us or to anyone,” said Jason Linde, senior vice president of government and community affairs for Food Allergy Research and Education, which states on their website that they are the nation’s leading nonprofit in the food allergy advocacy field and the biggest private funder of food allergy research. “A few companies did, and we’re grateful for them notifying us -- Chick-Fil-A, Wendy’s and others. However, the vast majority of bakers never notified their customers about this. And so we’ve seen these horrible situations like we’ve seen in Butte.”

“This was unbeknownst to me and Pork Chop John’s and a lot of other businesses,” said Walker. “Nobody has realized sesame flour got added to the buns and the breads and taco shells.”

Linde points blame at the American Bakers Association. He says they initially showed support while the bipartisan bill made its way through Congress by an overwhelming margin, but that changed after the law passed.

“At no point did the bakers ever raise an objection to this. And only as the implementation date came closer did they then start to do this behavior, which is just shameful,” said Linde.

To make things even more confusing for those with allergies, some products now include sesame flour but not the seeds, making it invisible to the naked eye.

“It doesn’t change the taste. It’s imperceptible. And so, because of that, because it’s impossible to see, it’s only after consumption that we learn the horrible truth,” said Linde.

Linde says his organization is working to close the loophole, but it has to happen at the federal level.

We reached out to the American Bakers Association, and they did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication. However, last month, ABA president and CEO Eric Dell released a statement saying consumer safety is their top priority, and they are urging Congress to call on the FDA to establish a sesame allergen threshold. Dell said they want to find “practical solutions that are compliant with the law while also feeding America.”

We also reached out to the Department of Public Health and Human Services, and they referred us to FDA rules that restaurants must follow and said retail food products containing sesame need to state the ingredient on the label.

So what can you do to prevent a severe allergic reaction to sesame? It’s all about vigilance, especially around baked goods.

Linde says people should check ingredient lists for sesame -- including parents with children in school.

That’s something Walker echoes.

“Read the products, ask the restaurants, and if they complain about it, then get up and leave, because your life is not worth it if they cannot accommodate you on the allergy list,” said Walker, who added that people suffering from an allergic reaction should not drive themselves to the hospital, as they could end up passing out.

It’s also important for those with sesame allergies to always have an EpiPen on hand in their emergency kit and call 911 immediately after being injected.

A list of companies that have not added sesame to their products is available on the FARE website.

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