The past three years show consistent allergen contamination in the food industry, but the products vary, and patterns are hard to establish.
There were 437 food product recalls in 2015, with 39 attributed to bakery products and 32 of these were blamed on allergens. Fourteen recalls were from milk, seven from undeclared peanuts, seven tree nuts, seven egg, four soy and two wheat allergens.
In 2016, there were 540 food product recalls total, with 96 attributed to bakery products, and 56 of those from allergens. Peanuts were involved in 22 of these bakery product recalls, with all but one of them resulting from a single incident. Another 22 allergen recalls were due to unlabeled milk, while nine were from egg, seven tree nut, two soy and two wheat allergens.
There have been 275 food product recalls through mid-August of 2017, with 44 from baking products and 33 of these blamed on allergens. Sixteen of the bakery recalls were due to tree nuts, 12 milk, six egg, three soy, three peanut, one fish and one wheat.
The good news is that there were no reports of consumer injury from these recalls. When companies discovered an issue, they voluntarily took rapid and effective action to remove mislabeled products from the market. Baked goods are unique because most producers have quick access to the market. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends.
The bad news is that bakery recalls for allergens have been a persistent problem for many years, with little to no sign of decline. But where is the problem, and how can the industry solve it? There are several points in the process where unlabeled allergens can be mistakenly introduced. To reverse this trend, effective controls can prevent these errors and detect them quickly if a failure occurs.
Establishing a model
Large- and medium-sized bakeries have shared their best practices at industry meetings over the past 20 years. The American Bakers Association (ABA) has collected best practices from these companies as well as from other industry leaders, in a white paper published on its web site.
The strategy is based on several key steps. First, bakers should formulate products to “all contain” or “all eliminate” allergens as much as possible. Then, minimize the number of allergen changeovers performed by scheduling, moving production and more. Employees must be trained on the risks involved in handling allergens. A comprehensive vendor management program is important because a supplier problem quickly becomes a baker’s or co-manufacturer’s problem. A structured change management process can ensure the accuracy of labels, as will segregating allergen ingredients and packaging in storage and on the bakery floor. A comprehensive assessment will identify potential allergen risks and what next steps are required. Finally, a bakery must know how to test traceability of ingredients into products and products back to ingredients.
The baking industry’s combat of allergen contamination is not yet a success, although there are indications that some might have it figured out.
Clearly, continued failures are not acceptable, so the industry must seek new solutions. In some cases, new risks such as the peanut contamination in wheat flour have identified the root cause and set corrective actions that will prevent the failure from happening again.
When working properly, the system will expose uncontrolled risks when a failure occurs. Industry has responded rapidly and effectively when a failure was detected.
During a 2016 peanut contamination in wheat flour, a single event that resulted in 21 peanut-related recalls, the Food and Drug Administration communicated effectively via the Product Registry. The potentially contaminated products were removed quickly from the market, preventing harm to sensitive consumers.
ABA member companies share best practices in food safety openly, as a failure anywhere in the baking industry negatively impacts everyone. Small- or medium-sized baking companies, those new to the industry, or those with questions about how to implement an effective allergen management program can reach out to ABA, AIB International, Independent Bakers Association, Retail Bakers of America or even their own suppliers to learn about proven best practices.
The expertise is available. All bakers need to do is reach out and make it a priority to end allergen recalls.