Legislation will be approved by the end of the year to ensure food labels clearly state ingredients that could trigger allergic reactions, officials say.
Food labelling law could save lives
A federal public health law is being drafted by five Government authorities in a bid to help prevent residents from becoming ill or even dying from food allergies.
The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Environment and Water, Health Authority-Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority and Dubai Health Authority (DHA) want to introduce checks on food labels.
According to Dr Aizeldin El Gak, the acting director of public health at DHA, the law "will be approved by the end of the year, after which more details will be added to clearly define roles of various bodies and action will be taken to further reduce food allergy cases".
The introduction of the law will be welcomed by thousands of residents - and in particular the parents of four-year-old William Whitcher who, on his first birthday, almost died from eating a peanut butter sandwich.
Just seconds after biting into the sandwich his eyes became red and swollen, he began vomiting and his voice started changing. His parents did not realise it immediately, but their son was choking from an allergic reaction.
Rachel and Ashley Whitcher now know not to allow their son to eat peanuts. But when they shop for food, they cannot be certain if products contain traces of peanuts - despite regulations that require goods to have proper warning labels about any allergens they might contain.
Saeed Jasim Mohamed, the acting director of communications and community service at Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA), said under 2007 labelling guidelines all substances and ingredients that could cause an allergic reaction must be listed on the packaging.
But Mrs Whitcher, a Briton who lives in Abu Dhabi, said this regulation was not often enforced. "There is nothing here to protect against cross-contamination, so shopping can be a nightmare," she said.
At her local bakery, Mrs Whitcher has found Arabic flatbread on display next to a cake covered with peanuts, and sesame seeds in the bottom of a packet of non-sesame rolls.
"You need to know the product very well before you buy it, otherwise you could have a problem," said Sanjida Ahmed, an allergy researcher at Eastern Biotic & Life Sciences's Dubai laboratory. "Even traces of nuts could be lethal."
Basheer Hassan Yousef, a food safety expert at Dubai Municipality, said major allergens - including peanuts, walnuts, soy, gluten, shellfish, fish, egg, milk and sulphite - must be listed in the ingredients on food packaging. If his team finds an unlabelled product that contains any of these "we will take action accordingly", he said.
Mr Whitcher said proper enforcement would be a great help for people with severe allergies. "The packages on food products show the list of ingredients but it doesn't say, for example, if the food has been manufactured in the same factory that makes something with nuts."
Dr Michael Loubser, an allergy specialist who sees about 10 patients a week at his Infinity Polyclinic in Dubai, says the most common allergens for Middle Eastern and Asian children are chickpeas and sesame. "In the UAE, because it is so multicultural, we have a little bit of everything, which is why labelling is critically important," he said. "Chickpea and sesame allergies are just as life-threatening as peanuts."
The most severe allergic reactions can result in anaphylaxis - a severe allergic reaction which can cause death within minutes and requires immediate treatment with an epinephrine (adrenaline) injection. Sufferers must keep an injection - in the shape of an autoinjector often known by the trademark EpiPen - with them at all times, so they can immediately be treated if they accidentally eat something that triggers a reaction. Autoinjectors, though, are only available in a few public hospitals.
"The local government hospitals have them in stock sometimes, but the private hospitals don't have a good supply and sometimes the ones we can find have already expired," said Mr Whitcher.
Dr Loubser said it was "absolutely ludicrous" that there should be any shortage of autoinjectors. Making them available at local pharmacies, on prescription, would save lives.
"The government has restricted access to the EpiPen, but it's not habit forming or dangerous in any way, so it should be much more easily available," he said.
* Additional reporting by Maey El Shoush