Unwrapping the recall riddle

by Len Heflich
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Other major allergens like eggs and soy present distinct challenges  in allergen control.

Mislabeling is the biggest cause of allergen recalls in baking. Despite constant updates to finished product labels, the industry has been bombarded with changes due to regulatory requirements for genetically modified ingredients, dietary fiber definition, Nutrition Facts Panel update, vending label update, added sugar labeling and folic acid calculation. Add to these company-initiated changes for new formulations, promotions, etc., and the burden of label maintenance is huge and costly.

The level of regulatory change in labeling is unprecedented and bound to cause consumer confusion. Every time a label is updated, there is a risk of an error somewhere along the chain of implementation. Segregation of packaging in storage and use is an example of a best practice that companies use to ensure that packages don’t get mixed. Some companies have installed scanners at the final step to guarantee the right packaging is used.

When an ingredient supplier produces and ships an allergen-contaminated product to its bakery customers, recalls skyrocket. This happened in 2016 with a peanut contamination in wheat flour, a single event that resulted in 21 peanut-related recalls. The flour flowed from mill to customer to secondary customer to retailers and into an ever-expanding array of consumer products. The recalls lasted from April 20 to July 15 with two clusters in April and June to July. It is suspected that the wheat going into the flour mill became contaminated during shipping, possibly in a rail car, with peanut residue.

The level of peanut protein in the finished products was low, and allergic consumers reported two minor reactions. The industry dodged a bullet and learned it needs better management of rail cars used to transport peanuts and their residue. The industry is seeking a system to ensure cars are adequately segregated or cleaned prior to being used to haul a different food ingredient, but fragmented ownership and control of rail cars makes this challenging.

Although allergen recalls continue, there are no apparent patterns or trends when it comes to specific products or categories. Recalls affect bakeries of all sizes.

The American Bakers Association (A.B.A.) offers numerous resources for education related to allergen management for its member companies. In 2017, 20 of baking’s 33 allergen recalls are from companies not involved in the A.B.A., and 12 are from supermarket in-store bakeries. Two recalls were attributed to A.B.A. members. Similar overall numbers were reported in 2016.

Lee Sanders, senior vice-president of government affairs and public affairs at the A.B.A., insists that food safety is not a competitive issue.

“Food safety is the highest priority for our members, and allergen management is part of that critical equation,” Ms. Sanders said. “As we discuss these issues with our members, we approach them with allergic customers and consumers as a priority.”

Another resource is the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Steve Taylor, Ph.D., or Joe Baumert, Ph.D.

“At FARRP, we pride ourselves in working cooperatively with all segments of the food industry, including the baking industry, to share our expertise and knowledge of best practices,” Dr. Taylor said. “We would welcome the opportunity to work with a wider array of baking companies.”

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