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The Food Allergen Dilemma

While exhibiting at a national food industry trade show, we attended a presentation on food allergens given by Dr. Steve Taylor’s on the implications they have in today’s food plants. Dr. Taylor is Professor of Food Science & Technology at the University of Nebraska and Director of the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program, he is one of the world’s leading food allergy researchers.

In today’s world, food allergies are a big deal.

You may ask why this is such a big deal when less than three percent of the population has food allergies. Or rather, why do I have to change the way I do things for such a small segment of the population?

These are good questions. Ten years ago food allergies were just starting to become an issue. Yet, in today’s world, your plant can suffer an incredibly severe setback if your company is forced to issue a recall on a product due to a mistake related to food allergens.

Let’s start with the central problem here: labeling. As the FDA has cracked down on food product labels, food manufacturers have increasingly used the “may contain” statement on labels for their products. This is problematic for two main reasons:

Regulatory differences: Different regulations mean confusion for all parties. When it comes to understanding what is required to be on a label and what isn’t, you need to know rocket science.

Trivial amounts of allergen sources: Labeling may occur even when amounts of allergen sources are incredibly negligible.

We will focus on the second point here because Dr. Taylor had a lot to say about it. He offered this statistic which really caught our attention: 50% of packaged cookies say “contains peanuts” or “may contain peanuts” while only 10% actually contain any trace amount of peanuts. This statistic is mind blowing.

This leads to food allergic consumers to exhibit different types of behavior. Some cautious food allergic people won’t eat these cookies, and they’ll be missing out on products that are safe for them. Some risk-takers will eat these cookies, and sooner or later they’ll suffer from a reaction to a cookie that does contain peanuts. Clearly, it’s a lose-lose situation.

Dr. Taylor also addressed another interesting topic of concern to manufacturers. Labels often feature the phrase “made in same facility as…” when no real risk exists because the different areas of the facility containing the allergen are properly separated.

This occurred in a large Australian manufacturing facility in 2007. Most, if not every, product exiting the facility contained the “made in same facility as…” allergen warning label when the majority of the facility’s products didn’t contain trace amounts of the allergen.

However, cross-contamination does occur. This happens when a safe food comes in contact with an undesired allergen. Without a doubt, the issue of cross-contamination warrants more than just a quick explanation. There are quite a few steps you must consider in your plant in order to ensure that a recall isn’t looming in the near future- please remember to address the following:

  • Staff Awareness

    Your staff should know what they’re doing. Those handling equipment and packaging should be educated in potential cross-contamination situations.

  • Cleaning

    Dirty equipment is a big no-no. Clean residue off all equipment properly and frequently. Try implementing a cleaning schedule so that all necessary areas of your plant are free of dangerous allergens.

  • Design

    The design of your plant is crucial. We design facilities with properly separated production areas.

  • Storage

    Tread carefully here. Seriously. Allergenic raw materials can be hazardous if stored haphazardly. Have an organizational system present that eliminates risks.

Hopefully you’ve learned a thing or two here and see the importance of dealing with food allergens in your plant.