Most frustrating is the advisory warnings, Taylor notes. Companies that know how to handle allergens don't use advisory warnings unnecessarily. "But a lot of companies are not sure," adds Taylor. "They put it on when the risk is small to non-existent - a case of CYA!"
NOTE TO R&D
Now that your plant ops people are vigilant about keeping allergens out of your finished food products, how good are your ingredient suppliers? Some processors are using allergen tests to determine the reliability of their ingredients.
"A lot of companies are making yeoman efforts to find out what is in products from their suppliers," says Steve Taylor, who heads the University of Nebraska's Food Allergy Research and Resource Program.
The results can be very revealing. Some processors run tests following supplier surveys to determine if the information received from suppliers is reliable.
"If a supplier isn't providing honest answers, he won't be a preferred supplier for long," says Taylor.
TAKING THE TEST
Allergen testing employs the ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test method, the same technology employed in immune system research and diagnosis. It is the initial screen for detection of the HIV virus. ELISA is based on principles of antibody-antibody interaction.
"You do an extraction step then transfer the sample to the micro-well," explains Sandra Zinn, laboratory director for Silliker Labs. "The allergen reacts with the antibody coating the well."
If the allergen is present, an "antibody sandwich" is created around the allergen. A blue color emerges, the intensity of the blue indicative of the amount of allergen present.
WHAT THE ACT SAYS
President Bush signed into law the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act in August. It requires processors to identify eight allergens: milk, eggs, fish (by species), crustacean shellfish (such as crab, lobster or shrimp), tree nuts (such as almonds, pecans or walnuts), peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
Highly refined oils are exempt from the labeling requirement.
Section 203 requires identification of the allergens in "plain, common language" and to use the word "contains" on food labeling, using the "common or usual name" of the food ingredient. This part of the bill requires food marketers to clarify technical ingredient names - whey as a milk ingredient, for instance - to alert the consumer to the potential allergen.
Section 205 requires FDA to inspect all food manufacturing, processing, packaging and storage facilities to ensure the firm is complying with practices to reduce or eliminate the cross-contact of a food with unintentional allergenic ingredients or allergenic protein residues; and to verify the proper labeling of major food allergens on foods.
Section 206 requires the FDA to "define and permit the use of the term ‘gluten-free' on food labels." A final rule is expected within four years.
Section 209 recommends revision of the federal Food Code "to provide guidelines for preparing allergen-free foods in food establishments, including restaurants, grocery store delicatessens and bakeries, and elementary and secondary school cafeterias."
- Information provided by Silliker Labs