An estimated 11 million Americans of all races, ages and nationalities suffer food allergies. Symptoms vary dramatically from slight discomfort and rash to serious swelling of the skin and in the throat. Worst case scenarios include hospitalization and even death.
That spells trouble for food makers, and few segments of the industry are immune.
Milk and eggs, two of the "Big Eight" allergens. Photo courtesy of learn-about-allergies.com.
One of the biggest food stories this year is the mandated warning statements for foods containing certain allergens. The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act, which went into effect in January, requires food processors to label clearly products containing eight categories of food allergens: milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. The Big Eight are blamed for up to 90 percent of reported allergic reactions to food in the country.
(Editor's Note: On Apr. 6, FDA released "Guidance for Industry: Questions and Answers Regarding Food Allergens, including the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004." Click here for more information.)
"Any product that includes any of these or any exposure to these foods has to be indicated on the label," explains Daniel Best, president of Best Vantage Inc. (www.bestvantageinc.com), Northbrook, Ill., which performs product development and market consulting for food processors. "Including a warning statement on any product is never good for business, even if that warning is aimed at only a small segment of consumers. This is a blow to a lot of ingredient suppliers, too, particularly if the processor can substitute an alternative ingredient."
Fish oils are a case in point. With well-established heart-health benefits, Omega-3 fish oils have become popular ingredients. Now, however, products containing them must display an allergen warning. Some processors would rather look for plant-derived sources of Omega-3s (such as algae) than place a warning label on their products.
Eyes on the plant
Food marketers are willing to bite the bullet and label products according to law. But unexpected allergens that inadvertently get into a product or processing area pose a more complicated threat.
"Manufacturing is where most of the attention needs to go," says Steve Taylor, who heads the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska (www.farrp.org) in Lincoln. "It all boils down to the four S's: separation, segregation, scheduling and sanitation."
Most major processors have stepped to the plate on the issue, Taylor says. A few even have blazed trails in allergen protection. "Some companies have done stellar jobs, even under difficult circumstances," he says. "They've even earned the right to brag a little bit."
Maybe they've earned that right, but the brag is brief and often cut short by company spokespersons and legal departments. Talk has it that Kraft Foods conducts an admirable shared-equipment sanitation effort; that the quality assurance effort at General Mills has targeted allergen control; that Kellogg's allergen control team has established effective systems to verify results. Some corporate and front-line experts are eager to share what they've accomplished and learn, but allergen liability concerns make many at plants and headquarters alike skittish and tight-lipped on the issue.
Clearly, the allergen issue is problematic and, with the new labeling bill altering the legal landscape, still new. But steps taken by the marquee names in the industry reflect key principles for protecting plant and product against unwanted allergens.
Segregation and separation
Allergen control revolves around Taylor's four S's, beginning with segregation.
Processing plants that can afford to segregate individual lines for the manufacture of products containing the eight major allergens have a distinct advantage over those that can't. Best-case scenario puts allergens in another plant altogether. That's a luxury usually left to big processors with large plants, preferably multiple plants, and many lines. Hershey, for example, reportedly runs its peanut products in one building while another facility never sees a peanut - the ingredient that seems to prompt the most violent allergic reactions. M&M Mars similarly segregates lines for products with peanuts in their formulation.
"If you're big enough, you can run separate chocolate factories, but you can't insist on that for smaller companies," says Taylor.
For many processors, the more realistic option may be to run products containing the allergens on a separate line. But "a lot of facilities are cozy. There aren't a lot of degrees of separation," says Taylor. "Move the line a few feet to the left and put up a heavy plastic curtain to separate."
Curtain separation can be even more important during the sanitation process than during manufacturing. Product lifted from the floor or equipment surface under air pressure may splatter or be projected surprising distances. A curtain will catch such residue, usually limiting its fall and dispersal to the base of the curtain.
"We created our Clean Curtains for control of overspray and bacteria during washdown cycles at food plants," says Tony Goff, President of Goff's Enterprises (www.industrialcurtains.com), Pewaukee, Wis. "While we've never specifically tested them for allergen control, it seems like a logical theory that they would work. Our ‘Clean Curtains' certainly add an additional level of separation no matter what the airborne enemy is."