No Contact Order: The Problem With Allergens

No Contact Order: The Problem With AllergensOne in thirteen children in the United States has a food allergy. Some cause mild reactions such as rash or sneezing, while others lead to trouble swallowing, chest pain or death.

As a result, food and beverage production companies and the FDA have become increasingly concerned with product labeling and cross-contamination — is possible to keep allergens away?

Undeclared Issues

According to Health Day, the FDA has seen a recent spike in food-based allergic reactions that come from improperly labeled products. FDA guidelines clearly state that major allergens such as milk, eggs, fish, and tree nuts must be clearly listed on any packaging. But in the past several years, the administration has noticed an uptick in problems with mislabeled food, for example “dairy-free” chocolate bars that actually contain milk. In many cases, the FDA found the problem wasn’t one of deliberate obfuscation but accidental label-swapping — similar products with similar packaging that aren’t handled correctly.

Of course, mistakes are small comfort to someone admitted to hospital after eating a “peanut-free” snack only to find out they’ve been duped. More concerning, however, is the notion of cross-contamination: food that’s appropriately labeled but has accidentally come in contact with known allergens during the manufacturing process.

Limited Contact

Quality Assurance Magazine recently interviewed three food processing experts to get their take preventing this kind of cross-contamination. First, it’s important for companies to identify the “big 8”, food allergens in any of their products. While there are more than 160 foods that can potentially cause a reaction, the FDA mandates labeling for: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans. Companies would do well to store these items separately from other ingredients and use color-coded tools to measure out or stir these ingredients.

Employees are another factor in limiting allergen contamination. The proper use, cleaning and disposal of tools must be paramount — the notion of “it’s not a big deal” or “it’s such a small amount” must be completely eradicated from a food production environment. This starts with training but requires ongoing diligence; processing plant culture must be build around the idea of zero allergen contamination.

The final piece of this puzzle is food handling equipment. Ideally, separate machines should be used to process shellfish and non-shellfish products. For companies with limited space or other restrictions that make this impossible, it’s critical to rely on tools such as dry vapor stream cleaners and sanitizers in addition to routine cleaning procedures whenever a processing device is switched from using non-allergen to allergen-rich ingredients.

Is it possible to eliminate allergen contact with non-allergen foods? Absolutely. With diligent oversight, employee commitment, and the use of high-performance cleaning technologies, this no contact order can be strictly enforced.

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