UPDATED: APRIL, 2021.
In today’s food processing market, allergens are becoming a significant cause for concern. Food and beverage processors and manufacturers need to implement comprehensive allergen control and management programs to avoid product recalls and protect their consumers.
What Are Food Allergies and Allergens?
A food allergy is an immune system response to a food that the body recognizes as foreign and harmful to it. In an attempt to protect itself, the body releases chemicals which trigger allergic symptoms that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin, or cardiovascular system. Depending on the individual’s sensitivity to the allergen, reactions can range from low-grade fevers, rashes and flu-like symptoms to more severe conditions like anaphylactic shock which could result in death.
Individuals may be allergic to a product as a whole or ingredients, mainly proteins, contained in a product. It is now estimated that around 200 to 250 million people (around 6% of the population) suffer from a food allergy, up from previous research by Elucidare Limited in 2011 which estimated it at around 150 million people worldwide. The Allergen Bureau announced in February 2020 that during the last decade, 40% of recalls coordinated by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) were due to undeclared allergens and similarly, in 2019, undeclared allergens was the most common reason for recalls issued by The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS). Furthermore, Global Trends in Anaphylaxis Epidemiology and Clinical Implications, published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology: In Practice, uncovered a general increasing trend in the number of hospital admissions caused by anaphylaxis and that "food represents the most common trigger for anaphylaxis admissions to hospital".
The 14 major food allergens are:
- Cereals containing wheat
- Nuts (tree nuts)
- Sulphur dioxide (sulphates)
Allergen Control Points in the Manufacturing Process
Food and beverage manufacturers have a responsibility to identify allergens that are contained in their products and take action to isolate them from other non-allergen products processed in the same facility. Ingredients that contain allergens should be stored separately from non-allergen ingredients. Finished products containing that ingredient should also be isolated from other non-allergen products.
Formatting production schedules to isolate products containing allergens is a common tactic in allergen management. Products containing allergens could be scheduled to run at the end of the day or shift, or could be isolated to a particular production line, to avoid contact with other non-allergen products. Proactive scheduling will not only prevent cross-contamination, but can also save on employee time, sanitation costs, and production downtime.
Food Contact Surfaces
Product changes on a single production line are one of the main sources of allergen contamination. Many times, procedures are not in place to identify products that may be the same in name, but are made with different formulations.
It is important to remember that allergen contamination from food contact surfaces will not equally distribute itself throughout the products in a subsequent run. Allergen contamination tends to ‘slug’ through, usually at the beginning of the product run, making it difficult to detect as only a small proportion of the overall production run may pose a risk.
Effective cleaning and sanitizing must be performed to remove all allergen-containing product once the run is concluded.
Non-Food Contact Surfaces
Non-food contact surfaces also need to be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized to remove allergens. These areas may not come into direct contact with non-allergen foods, however, factors like employee handling and high-pressure spraying can lead to recontamination of clean surfaces with allergen-containing debris.
It is not uncommon in a facility that has multiple lines in one processing room to observe one line being actively cleaned while another, in close proximity, is packaging product. High pressure spraying in and around the line being cleaned can easily transfer and contaminate the running line.
Sampling and Testing
Test kits that can detect allergens in food products, on equipment surfaces and in CIP rinse water are available for detecting almond, egg, gliadin, hazelnut, milk, peanut, and soy residues. Usually, in a manufacturing environment, testing is performed by quality assurance staff or specially trained personnel.
Appropriately Labeled Packaging
Packaging can become a problem if formulations are not understood. If employees are not aware of a product that contains an allergen, they may change packaging without considering cleaning and package into a non-allergen labeled package.
Implementing an Effective Cleaning and Sanitation Program for Allergen Management
Effective cleaning and sanitizing must be performed to remove all allergen containing product once the run is concluded
One of the most important steps in preventing allergen cross-contamination is an effective cleaning and sanitation program.
Existing cleaning practices that are deemed satisfactory for other microbial contaminants may not be adequate to eliminate allergen traces. As such, dedicated protocols comprising chemistry, equipment and time are required and should be documented and made available to all personnel involved in the cleaning and sanitation process.
Once parameters for an allergen prevention cleaning and sanitation plan are in place, the program must be validated.
Validation of cleaning and sanitation protocols
The objective of cleaning validation is to prove that the processing equipment is consistently cleaned to prevent cross-contamination of hazards between products. In the case of allergens, validation should follow the ELISA test method.
When implementing an allergen control program, as with any program in a facility, employees need to be educated as to their role in preventing allergen contamination. Even with an allergen program in place, if it is not understood by the employees, it will not be successful.
Full training should be provided to new employees or those who have new responsibilities which now include allergen control. Refresher courses should be performed periodically to keep employees up-to-date on the program, as well as any improvements or changes that may have occurred in the allergen plan. More often than not, human error is the main contributing factor in product allergen recalls.
Allergen Management Training Course
On completion of the course, learners will:
- Understand what allergens are from a biochemistry perspective
- Understand the impact of allergens on susceptible people
- Understand the regulatory framework
- Be able to outline the impact of the above on the food processing site
- Be able to implement policies and practices to manage allergens within the food production environment
The course can be provided as part of an employee's learning plan or can be purchased directly by individual users looking to improve their knowledge and professional development. The course has been certified by the CPD Certification Service.