updated 7/21/2004 12:42:28 PM ET 2004-07-21T16:42:28

Legislation requiring food labels to identify allergens in easy-to-understand language cleared Congress Tuesday and headed for the president’s signature.

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Sponsors said the bill would help protect 11 million food-allergic consumers.

The House voted by voice to pass the bill, which also requires food ingredient statements to identify food allergens used in spices, natural or artificial flavorings and additives. The Senate approved the measure last March, and President Bush is expected to sign it.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., sponsor of the legislation, said labels that are incomplete or written in scientific jargon contribute to 200 deaths every year from allergic reactions, and 30,000 people requiring emergency treatment.

“If we do not take action to improve food labels, the numbers of deaths and food incidents will rise,” she said.

The bill, authored in the Senate by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., requires labels to make clear which, if any, of the eight main food allergens — milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat — are contained in a product.

It also requires the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track food allergy-related deaths.

Currently, Lowey said, the Food and Drug Administration approves such terms as “whey,” “casein” and “lactoglobulin” to indicate the presence of milk in a product, terms that many parents don’t recognize and that can be particularly difficult for children to understand.

Tim Willard, vice president of communications for the National Food Processors Association, said the bill was a “step forward for uniform, clear and consumer-friendly food allergen labeling.”

The legislation also includes a second measure, promoted by Rep. Chip Pickering Jr., R-Miss., and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., that creates incentives for animal pharmaceutical makers to invest in drugs for so-called minor animals.

The legislation is aimed at easing the process for FDA approval and making it economically feasible for drug companies to develop drugs for pet rabbits, sheep, deer, game birds and aquatic species.

Sessions said it would be particularly beneficial to the catfish industry, which now has only six drugs approved for use.

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