Oct. 11, 2016
Jennifer Barnett Fox
Standardized allergen handling is a key to reducing recalls and building transparency throughout the food chain.
The food industry has long strived to control allergens using identification, prevention and control. However, headlines highlighting the dangers of food allergens brought to light during the Epi Pen price-gouging scandal could further intensify the need for allergen transparency within the industry.
Undeclared allergens remain one of the main causes of product recalls for meat and poultry processors. In response, members of the industry continue to refine how to replicate the standardized success of pathogen control with similar guidelines for the control of allergens. The “Guidance for Allergen Control in Meat Establishments,” created in May 2015 and updated in December 2015, is one of the latest efforts to make allergen control safe and effective. The guidance was a joint effort between Colorado State Univ., Fort Collins, and the Center for Meat Safety & Quality in conjunction with the North American Meat Institute (NAMI).
“The cooperative effort provides what we believe to be the most current and best practices industry can effectively apply to prevent allergen-finished products from being introduced unintentionally through the manufacturing process and to ensure the finished products are fully and properly labeled,” says Norm Robertson, vice president of regulatory services with NAMI.
The NAMI guidelines acknowledge allergen control relies on the presumption that no undeclared allergens are present in the incoming ingredients, cross contamination is effectively eliminated, and correct product labels are in place. The guidance includes addressing risks in the hazard analysis of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan or through one or multiple critical control points (CCPs). The US Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) offers additional best practices in “Allergens and Ingredients of Public Health Concern.”
A Growing Problem
While most large plants have the resources to have a successful plan for allergen control in place, small- and medium-size operations can’t always maintain the same levels of awareness and due diligence.
“All plants have allergens,” says Bob Delmore, professor for meat safety and quality in Colorado State Univ.’s department of animal sciences. “The majority of allergen problems occur because of mislabeling and that can be complicated to correct.”
Unlike pathogens that can be cooled to prevent outgrowth or cooked to prevent the hazard, controls for allergens are more susceptible to human error in the form of cross contamination and mislabeled product. According to NAMI, having best practices in place to eliminate these issues is one of the best ways to reduce undeclared allergens and improve public health down the supply chain. Delmore recommends plants implement a systematic approach such as running allergens at the end of the day or relegating allergens to particular days. Even creating a step as simple as affixing the correct label to the top of paperwork can help ensure the right label ends up on each product.