Food allergies affect about 2% of adults and 4% to 8% of children in the US. An allergic reaction — and its severity — depend on the dose and the sensitivity of each allergic person, but the exact amount that could cause a reaction is not known. Reactions can range from simple skin irritations, such as “hives,” to minor respiratory reactions and, in extreme cases, death.
An allergen is a compound that contains a protein(s) capable of causing reactions in some people. While there are many food ingredients that cause allergic reactions, the top eight in the US are peanuts, tree nuts, soy, fish, shellfish, wheat, milk and eggs.
Most allergic individuals are aware of their sensitivities to certain ingredients and are careful to read product labels to ensure avoidance. The issue is not with allergens that are referenced on the label, but rather those that might go undeclared in a product. If an allergen was present in a product and not mentioned on the product label, an allergic person could eat the product … and suffer the consequences.
Undeclared allergens are the leading cause for recalls in the baking and snack industries. As you might expect, these pose a risk for consumers and, when identified, a crisis for the producing company and its customers. In addition to health risks for consumers, the cost of clearing store shelves is a significant one to the producing company.
Some companies have a need to cross-contact label their products. This happens due to legacy, hard-to-clean equipment designs that make it difficult to guarantee zero product or allergen carryover. Given this situation, companies might warn consumers with a label that reads, “This product may contain an allergen.”
These warnings cannot be ignored and must be taken seriously. Some allergen-sensitive individuals take risks by placing a small amount on the tongue to test a cross-contact labeled product. This might be successful some of the time, but this practice could cause a severe reaction or possibly death. While consumers have a responsibility to carefully read labels, cross-contact labeling limits choice for consumers. A better alternative is taking extra precautions to avoid cross contamination, which would benefit the industry and consumers.
At a recent family get together in my home, we served shrimp; to exercise caution, I asked if anyone was allergic. One person said yes, but only if she had more than two! This may work some of the time. Consumers who know they are allergic to an item should avoid it in total. You never know what the reaction might be because sensitivity could change or the protein level in the product may vary.
Both of my daughters are celiac patients. The only treatment for this is gluten avoidance, which is challenging but manageable. Although not a true allergen, gluten prevents absorption of nutrients. Guiding my daughters through this, I learned much about potential cross-contamination at home. In fact, we found it easier to go gluten-free in our house to avoid cross-contamination (except for a private stash). Both daughters have moved away from home, but we still have separate jars of peanut butter (a family favorite) for when they stop by. This avoids potential cross-contamination from “double-dipping.”
In a processing plant, having a strong allergen and label control plan is critical to avoid cross-contamination of products. This will help reduce the number of allergen recalls and, if applied at home, reduce the risk for consumers — and their allergen-sensitive houseguests.
As a starting point, a thorough risk assessment will enable development of preventive controls. Identification signage and labels can be posted during receiving, storage and use. Establishing a process will help manage and identify usage and storage of work in process, rework and non-conforming product, as will protocols for the storage and use of labels. Communication and documentation processes will streamline changeovers, scheduling, changes in product formulations or R&D trial production runs. And validation and verification of sanitation effectiveness can ensure a product is free of allergen cross contamination.
Being an allergy sufferer is diet-limiting and life-threatening. Let’s do our best as an industry — and as meal providers at home — to produce food with full disclosure of ingredients. For the industry, this would mean fewer recalls and at home, fewer allergic reactions. In both cases, this is a winning course of action.