- Manufacturers need to be extra careful about potential cross-contamination on production lines, according to Baking Business. The top recall category today is undeclared allergens, and the No. 1 reason for recalls is putting the wrong product in a package or an incorrect label on a package, the publication noted.
- Package labels stating a product "may contain" certain allergens could be a way to cover up for insufficiently thorough cleaning between production runs, and it doesn't do much to inform consumers, industry experts told Baking Business. The situation could also put those with serious food allergies at risk and potentially get brands in legal trouble.
- To limit problems, experts advise food makers to check printed labels for accuracy before putting them on a product; review package statements to reflect production practices; set up barcode readers to stop products from going into the wrong packaging; review ingredients, formulations, labeling and product specifications at least annually; beef up preventive controls to limit cross-contamination and ask suppliers how they handle theirs; consider outsourcing products containing allergens such as peanuts to co-packers; and document allergen-management plans and execution.
Allergen contamination is serious business, and the problem is increasing. An estimated 15 million people in the U.S. — including about 5.9 million children — have food allergies, according to Food Allergy Research & Education. In 2013, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study showing food allergies among children increased about 50% between 1997 and 2011.
In addition, a study released last year in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that 4% of Americans suffer from some kind of food allergy. FAIR Health followed up with a study using insurance data that found the number of people who need emergency treatment for food allergies had increased 377% in the past decade.
Of 456 food recalls in 2017, 218 of them were caused by undeclared allergens, according to Food Safety Magazine. The most common allergens and the number of recalls linked to them last year were: milk (110), egg (35), soy (28), almond (19) and peanut (18).
Given these statistics, manufacturers are under increasing pressure to make sure they keep allergen contamination out of their production facilities. The experts who spoke with Baking Business had a number of specific recommendations, and they all involve being extremely careful about potential cross-contamination, routinely double-checking processes and procedures and even considering outsourcing products containing allergens to other companies.
Cross-contamination can occur from inadequate cleaning of a production line so that residue from an allergen remains on the line and is picked up by the next product being made there.
Labels stating a product "may contain" a specific allergen or was "manufactured on shared equipment" don't just leave consumers without adequate information — and possibly constitute an attempt to avoid responsibility if an allergen is present. Studies show they may also be misinterpreted by those with food allergies as being safer than foods clearly labeled as containing the problematic ingredient. This could be damaging to the 40% of people with food allergies who buy products anyway, despite precautionary labels, according to research cited by UPI.
Adding to these food manufacturing challenges the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considering adding sesame to its current list of eight food allergens that must be declared on product packaging. The current allergens with this treatment are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans — which together cause about 90% of food-related allergic reactions in the U.S.
It's certainly not worth the financial and reputational damage — and FDA regulatory problems — for a manufacturer to risk allergic reactions or even recalls due to products that supposedly are allergen-free. Food makers are looking into a variety of allergen-free options such as plant-based egg alternatives, chickpea flour and citrus fiber. These substitutes are already being incorporated into products and are likely to became more common ways to avoid allergens.