4 Ways to Automate Allergen Control

Almost half of all recalls in the USA and more than half in Canada last year were caused by undeclared allergens. Allergen labelling and control has become an increasingly critical part of food safety as both consumer awareness and regulatory action related to food allergies builds. The Icicle food safety app now provides automated allergen control that is integrated seamlessly with the rest of your food safety program.

Food allergies are on the rise. Approximately 30 000 people in the USA seek emergency medical treatment every year due to food allergies, most commonly allergies to eggs, milk, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans (which make up 90% of food allergies). Evidence from the CDC has indicated that the incidence of food allergies in children is increasing and is the leading cause of anaphylaxis among children and adolescents, spurring the development of consumer-led programs like the Teal Pumpkin Project that aim to reduce risks for children with food allergies around Halloween. Initiatives like these represent the willingness of consumers, and institutions like schools, to choose allergen-free foods to promote inclusion and solidarity with those affected by food allergies and protect vulnerable populations.

In addition to consumer pressures, food producers must also adhere to increasingly stringent regulations from regulatory authorities introduced in recent years. The United States introduced the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act in 2004 and expanded regulatory attention to allergen control procedures in addition to labelling with the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2012. The 2014 EU Food Information Regulations introduced requirements to include allergy information in that market, and Canada revised its Food and Drug Regulations in 2012 to enhance labelling requirements as well (and may soon undergo further changes). This kind of legislation is a response to reports that allergens were being omitted from labelling as well as charges that labels were not transparently intelligible for consumers.

For a small number of food producers, allergen control is not a big issue. If your facility only produces rice, it is unlikely that allergen control is at the top of your list of priorities. But if you are a bigger plant with multiple products, or your facility handles any common allergens, the potential for contamination is especially present and dangerous to consumers and to your company. You can put general label warnings to protect yourselves from legal liability, but that is a blunt instrument solution that limits the market in a time when consumer awareness of food allergens is growing. The more pragmatic approach for food producers is to maintain effective segregation of allergens from non-allergenic products to avoid any risks of cross-contamination and benefit from both regulatory compliance and increased market share.

Recalls due to undeclared allergens is a preventable issue that is costing food companies in the long run. Damages to capital as well as brand reputation and consumer confidence are at stake. Once a business’ credibility is shaken, it’s not easy to win it back. As a result, it’s critical to avoid undeclared allergen recalls through comprehensive allergen control programs that are integrated into your food safety plan and end rather than begin with effective labelling.

There are four main ways that allergens can make their way into food products:

#1: Ingredients May Contain Allergens

Defence against allergen contamination starts with vendors and understanding the ingredients of your products. Food processors need to have a system in place to approve vendors, define their products, and flag those products that do contain allergens. This system must begin at the receiving phase. When a product is received by a facility, you need to be able to bring up the ingredient record and know right away if there’s an allergen so you can segregate the product immediately. Icicle’s new allergen control feature does this with prominent colour-coded warnings.

#2: Formulations May Inadvertently Include Allergens

The creators of product formulations may inadvertently include a product with an allergen. To guard against this problem, Icicle provides visual warnings if a formulation contains allergens and the product is automatically flagged to notify the user that there is an allergen in the product as a result of any particular ingredient or ingredients.

#3: Cross-Contamination in the Facility

Cross-contamination from within the facility, first and foremost, must be managed by procedures within the organization. Icicle allows users to define appropriate sanitation procedures required to avoid cross-contamination as well as to confirm and validate that the procedure has been implemented using checklist inspections. In addition, users can confirm that sanitation workflows have been completed before the next product batch is run.

#4: Poor Employee Training and Protocols

Employees are the last issue that most manufacturers must consider when ensuring allergen controls. As a general best practice, employees should be forbidden from bringing any food onto the production floor. This is more common than you’d think, and remember that just a few sesame seeds can result in the recall of an entire batch, costing anywhere from $25 000 to $25 million.

While facilities should consider how technology can automate processes to reduce the risk of human error, allergen training is also an important component of any allergen control program. Icicle manages employee training by indicating which employees are trained on specific allergen prevention procedures, according to the needs to the facility. In the upcoming version of Icicle currently under development, food producers will also be able to schedule further training and record training success.

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In the case that a product is recalled, through human error or otherwise, the business objective is always to recall the fewest number of products. To achieve this goal, a comprehensive traceability (or track-and-trace) package is required to detect specific batches that could be contaminated. It is a regulatory requirement in most jurisdictions to be able to provide a list of customers that received which batches of which products (known as the one step forward, one step back system). Icicle is committed to making food safety simple for manufacturers of all sizes, and advanced traceability is a core component of Icicle’s food safety solution.

Simple and intuitive, Icicle helps you stay in control of your products and ingredients to protect your customers, prevent recalls, and expand commercial opportunities.

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