News Feature | March 13, 2015

Raising The Bar To Prevent Undeclared Food Allergens

Source: Food Online

By Melissa Lind, contributing writer

Raising The Bar To Prevent Undeclared Food Allergens

Undeclared allergens were responsible for nearly half of all food recalls last year.  This number represents a dramatic rise from 2009 when allergens were responsible for just over a third of food recalls.

Up to 15 million people in the U.S. may be affected by food allergies and that number has gone up by 50 percent over the last 25 years to now affect 1 in 13 children.  Childhood food allergies cost the U.S. economy an estimated $25 billion each year and the cost of an individual recall will often reach well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. With the rising number of allergies in the U.S. population, the food industry must be vigilant in preventing mislabeling and cross contamination of food allergens resulting in cases of undeclared allergens, further subject to recall.

Over 300,000 emergency and acute care visits each year are caused by food allergies, some of which are life-threatening.  The risk of allergic reaction to undeclared allergens is high, but with eight common allergens causing over 90 percent of allergic reactions to food, these eight ingredients — peanuts, shellfish, finned fish, tree nuts, eggs, milk, wheat, and soybeans — warrant special attention.

Undeclared allergens occur in food production when a product is made with an allergen, but the allergen is not listed on the label. They also occur when a product is not made with an allergen, but has become contaminated with the allergen through contact with another product. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) requires food manufacturers, processors, and packagers to enact policies and procedures that prevent food-contamination events — such as an undeclared allergen — rather than simply responding to an event that has already occurred. Below are a few ways to address allergens before they turn into food-safety events.

Manufacturing And Storage
Ideally, separate facilities would be used for products that do and do not contain common allergens. However, the majority of food companies don’t even have the capacity to dedicate equipment for products containing allergens, much less a separate facility.  Because the same equipment must often be used for products with and without allergens, a line change, complete with sterilization, must be performed all the way through to the packaging station.

Knowing which product recipes and formulas, including ingredients, that may involve allergens is key for prevention.  Vendor labeling may also pose a problem.  Manufacturers must ensure that vendor labeling is adequate, correct, and that the facility has procedures in place to prevent contamination.

It is also essential to plan the storage of products in way that allergen-free products are not located in a place where cross-contamination is possible.  Preferably, products should be stored separately, but, at a minimum, products containing allergens must be stored physically lower or underneath non-allergen products to avoid the potential for a spill or drift contamination.

Packaging And Labeling
Some packaging and labeling errors occur when allergen notifications on ingredients are not carried over to final product labelling. In order to reduce the risk of packaging and labelling errors, food processors should ensure:

  • All labels are correct with no printing mistakes
  • No changes in product recipe were made since printing
  • Roll stock and packaging is labeled appropriately
  • Product lids, tubs, and front and back labels match SKU
  • Labels — front and back — are correct for SKU
  • Inner packaging material is selected before startup and prepared according to SKU
  • Primary packaging corresponds with secondary packaging
  • Additional inserts correspond with final packaging

Verification
Verification of packaging can be performed using barcode scanners or vision-sensor technology.  All ingredients should be identified and scanned as a measure to identify issues, such as allergen contents.  This provides a secure chain of processing and can help ensure the final product’s labelling includes appropriate allergen information.

UV-code technology can provide information that is legible under UV illumination, but not seen by the consumer.  UV labeling can verify that all packaging material is correct for a given SKU – including label, lid, tub, primary and secondary packaging, and inserts.

Sensors can also be configured to identify the presence or absence of certain words, such as “peanut,” “milk,” or “egg.” Product labels can be compared to stored imager. This allows missing texts to be immediately identified. Systems employing such technology can often be integrated with other line equipment and can be automated to perform multiple inspections simultaneously at high-speed line production.

With the number of food-allergen recalls rising each year, it is more imperative to consumer safety that undeclared allergens are prevented from entering the market. With the establishment of effective prevention programs, companies can minimize their liability risk.