Heightened concern for allergen spread has complicated the work of contract manufacturers, too. "Co-packers must now segregate ingredients to guard against cross-contamination," says Best. Some have added physical barriers in their plants to guard against airborne spread or spills of a potential allergen.
Receiving is another area where allergens can contaminate product and commence their march into the plant.
"A lot of companies have separated areas where they receive dry milk, peanuts, etc.," says Taylor. "Again, it's about segregation."
Identifying allergens at a glance helps to contain them. Processors are doing extra things to highlight their identity. Pallets containing peanuts or peanut product may be painted red or otherwise marked with a specific color. Some companies employ icons - a picture of a peanut, for example.
Scheduling and sanitation
If you must run products containing one of the Big Eight on the same lines as other products, scheduling becomes critical.
"Schedule your sugar cookies first, then your peanut butter products. Run peanuts (or the allergen of concern) right before your major cleanup," advises Taylor. "In other words, you want your most allergenic items to run immediately before sanitation. You have to get the allergen off before the next product run."
Douglas Machines Corp. has developed a number of parts washers - such as the Model 1536-SPW pictured above - that remove allergens, among other processing residue.
Scheduling long runs of a product containing an allergen reduces the number of clean-ups, saving valuable production time and reducing risk.
The ability to wet-clean a facility and its equipment generally simplifies the sanitation task. "An ice cream facility can have peanut and eggs and cream running on its lines. Dairies may use soy, nuts, eggs, but they usually have the opportunity to CIP [clean in place] the whole thing, which provides good allergen control," explains Taylor. "But a bakery or chocolate confection plant may have portions of the plant that can't be washed down."
"Dry cleaning" a plant poses a bigger challenge. Air-hose blowing, though still common, poses risk of spreading allergens, and the better plant programs have ceased the practice. A peanut chunk can be propelled half way across a plant by an air-hose blast. A vacuum, on the other hand, removes it.
In dry cleaning plant areas that contain one or more allergens, great care must be taken to control and contain allergen-laden dust and debris. Distributing allergens during brushing, wiping, sweeping or compressed-air cleaning can make a bad situation worse. This results in food quality and safety problems and increased sanitation costs associated with recleaning the allergen-contaminated areas.
"HEPA vacuuming dry plant areas is an effective way to collect and effectively contain dust and debris during cleaning operations," says Russ Seery, North American director of sales for Nilfisk-Advance America Inc. (www.n-aa.com), Malvern, Pa., a maker of industrial vacuum cleaners. "Long used by the pharmaceutical industry to safely collect and contain dangerous pharmaceutical compounds, HEPA vacuums filter collected material down to 0.3 microns at 99.97 percent efficiency, exhausting clean air back into the plant environment. At this level of filtration, allergens 0.3 microns and larger and even some microorganisms are contained."
Your allergen-control program is in place. Is it working? Are allergens still getting through the cracks? Maybe you have a very effective program but are wondering if you have committed too much time, money and manpower to the effort.
The path to these answers is testing.
Silliker Laboratories (www.silliker.com), Homewood, Ill., currently conducts tests for six specific allergens: milk, egg, gliadin (a component of gluten), almond, peanut and soy. More are on the way. The kits, developed by Neogen of Lansing, Mich., are targeting foods subsumed under the Big Eight.
"Every three to six months, a new test kit comes out," says Sandra Zinn, laboratory director for Silliker, anticipating the coming release of a hazelnut test. She hopes that a "tree nut" kit will emerge that will simultaneously test for all tree nuts. "If a company claims its product contains no peanut, it must be able to prove it."
Silliker tests both environmental and product samples. Environmental tests derive from swab or sponge samples from equipment. Results indicate the effectiveness of plant cleanup efforts. Tests may also indicate cross contamination via air, product or employee.
"We're getting an interesting mix of samples," notes Zinn. "We are finding allergens in some samples when we weren't expecting them, but it isn't often."
But when does abundant good practice cross the line into excess? The boundaries are still being drawn.
"Some companies aren't doing enough. Some are overdoing it," assesses Taylor. Some processors are so scared of the allergy issue that they have gone to sanitation extremes. "One company is doing a six-hour cleanup when a 40-minute cleanup would do the trick. The company is doing too much of the right thing. They incur unnecessary cost."
Awareness is the key
Many processors feel the allergen bill put the writing on the wall. For them, forewarned is fore-armed.
"Vigilant companies have thought of just about everything," says Taylor. "But some companies still lack awareness of the issue. So, from the consumer's point of view, there is still a risk of hazardous product out on the market."