How to manage food allergens in food industries?

This is a major aspect of food safety that is undertaken by agri-food companies to ensure the absence of allergens in their final products. Some recommendations exist; the guidelines proposed by the Food and Drink Europe, the Food Standard Agency du Royaume Uni, the Australian Food and Grocery Council, and the Grocery and Manufacturer Association (US). 

The company must first find out about priority allergens in their country and in the countries they export to. If one or more of these allergens appear in the ingredient list or in ingredients of the raw materials used by the company, then the whole process starts.

A team dedicated to this activity must identify all sources of allergens entering the plant. Once identified, these raw materials must be isolated from others so as not to contaminate the raw materials with the allergen. For example, let's take a plant that makes cookies, one of which is peanut-based. Upon arrival, the peanut powder is isolated to avoid contamination. Then the team will identify the path that peanut powder will take and all the equipment with which the powder will be in contact. Similarly, employees who handle this allergen are identified. All these identified parameters (equipment, people, air ...) can be at the origin of a cross-contamination, let's call them vectors. Cross-contamination occurs when an ingredient, finished product or equipment comes into contact with these vectors and contaminates itself with peanut. The team must therefore imagine all the possible scenarios and all the cases in which there may be cross-contamination. This first phase is called risk assessment.

Following this step, the team must put in place prevention measures to limit the possible contact between peanut powder (and vectors) and anything that should not contain peanuts. Several options are available to them. Identify people in contact with the peanuts so that they do not handle other products or equipment, plan the production of peanut cookies after the other cookies have been made, physically separate peanut and peanut-free products from the peanut cookies. Whenever possible, have a line dedicated to peanut cookies, and / or set up a cleaning method that will be able to remove traces of peanuts from all equipment after production. This second step is risk management.

Now, if even with all those measures put in place to reduce the risk, there are traces of peanuts in cookies that should not contain them, the manufacturers put the label "may contain peanut". The lack of resources, the difficulty of being able to plan in accordance with allergens, the impossibility of removing peanuts from a surface, or the conformation of the plant (built a long time ago for example) are reasons that may justify the presence of the message "may contain". The decision step of putting a "may contain" is called risk communication. It is based on the assessment of risk and the means implemented to reduce those risks (and their efficiencies).

The management of allergens is not limited to this, there are other actions and thoughts to be taken such as regulatory changes, the transport of ingredients, the risk of cross-contamination in ingredients (management of suppliers), the form and the amount of the allergen in the ingredient (powder, liquid, chunks ...), how to test the presence of allergens in products or surfaces etc.

The PARERA platform is currently writing guidelines for the management of allergens in Canadian agri-food companies.