More questions than answers in baked foods recalls

by Josh Sosland
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Cinnabon Stix, Chick-fil-A Chocolate Chunk Cookie, 7-Eleven Fresh to Go peanut butter cookies, recalled due to undeclared peanuts in flour
Recalls associated with the incident include Cinnabon Stix, 7-Eleven Fresh To Go cookies and Chick-fil-A chocolate chunk cookies.

TUCKER, GA. — The presence of peanuts in wheat flour has been cited by CSM Bakery Solutions as the cause of a series of late-April product recalls by the company and its customers. The matter, which has been the subject of a Food and Drug Administration investigation, has raised numerous questions with potential ramifications for the flour-based foods industry.

Recalls associated with the incident were issued by Safeway Inc. (layer cakes and decorated chocolate chip cookies); Cinnabon, Inc. (Cinnabon Stix); Bakery Express of Southern California L.L.C.  (7-Eleven Fresh To Go cookies); Glenn Wayne Wholesale Bakery (7-Eleven Fresh To Go cookies); Old Home Kitchens — Benson’s Bakery Inc. (various cakes); and Chick-fil-A, Inc. (chocolate chunk cookies). The recalls were issued and posted on the F.D.A. web site beginning April 26 and continuing through April 30.

 CSM said it initiated the recall after post-production testing at the company discovered “flour containing undeclared peanut as a result of incidental contact.”

The company did not disclose exactly how much peanut was in the flour involved in the incident.

People with an allergy or severe sensitivity to peanut are at risk of a serious or life-threatening allergic reaction if they consume products containing peanuts.

In its recall announcement, Old Home Kitchens said the products affected “do not reveal the presence of peanuts.” The other recalls made no specific mention of whether the presence of peanuts had been found in the finished product.

In connection with each of the recalls, CSM and the other companies said no illnesses have been reported to date.

Because no specific rules guide the incidental presence of peanuts in grain (peanuts are considered foreign material, subject to the same limits as other farm commodities), the supposed presence of peanuts in flour and the large number of product recalls may raise questions in connection with grain standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, prospective rules that are part of the Food Safety Modernization Act and guidelines from the F.D.A. In 2013, a research study found 63% of wheat flour samples contain traces of soy, another allergen. With the purported discovery of peanut in flour, a new issue, questions arise over whether the incidence is widespread and what risks are posed. Additionally, industry observers asked whether specific guidelines for the presence of peanuts in the food supply need to be considered.

The ramifications of the recall for the grain and milling industry could be far reaching, said Ricardo Carvajal, an attorney with Hyman, Phelps & McNamara in Washington. Mr. Carvajal counsels the flour milling industry on regulatory affairs.

“Regardless of how this matter is resolved, the F.D.A. apparently intends  to interpret preventive controls under FSMA to require industry to address cross-contact with allergens in grain commodities,” he said. "It has the potential to be a real game changer.

"In this regard, F.D.A. views the grain standards as irrelevant. The question is how far industry will be expected to go to eliminate cross contact in the supply chain."

U.S. peanut production in 2015 totaled 6.2 billion lbs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Peanuts are grown in 10 different states. While 3.5 billion lbs, or 56% of the crop, were  produced in Georgia last year, crops as small as 15 million lbs and as large as 660 million lbs were harvested in the states of Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. These states harvested 289,080,000 bus of wheat in 2015, equating to 14.1% of the entire U.S. wheat crop. 
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