Allergen control plans in the food industry: Best practices

Neogen was the sponsor of the very successful Food Safety and Compliance track at this year’s Natural Products Expo in Anaheim, Calif. One of the sessions given, “Allergen Control: The Business Case and Best Practices to Support Your Company,” was presented by Jenna Blumfield, senior food editor for New Hope Network and Neogen’s Market Development Manager, Jim Topper.

“One of the really nice things that comes from having such a strong presence in the allergen market is the ability to work with industry experts, many of whom are right here at Neogen,” Topper said. “A couple of years ago, Jennifer Baker, Tim Hendra, Tony Lupo and I put together an industry handbook on validating and verifying an allergen control program. We were able to work with several other industry experts including Steve Taylor and Joe Baumert from the Food Allergen Research and Resource Program (FARRP) at the University of Nebraska, and several experts from major companies in the food industry, to put together this extremely valuable handbook. It’s become the industry’s ‘bible’ for building a strong allergen control program. I excerpted a great deal of the content from that handbook to create this presentation.”

What are food allergens?

“Food allergens are naturally occurring proteins that cause an allergic reaction in some people,” said Topper. “What’s unique about an allergen as opposed to other food reactions is that it causes the immune system to respond.”

Some of the chief challenges with allergens are that they can’t be heated or processed out of foods, and they are resistant to extremes in pH level. There is no known cure at this time, so the only thing food allergic consumers can do is strictly avoid certain food products.

What is an allergen control plan?

The main objective of an allergen control plan (ACP) in a food production environment is to:

  • Prevent cross-contact between allergens and non-allergenic food runs
  • Ensure label accuracy
  • Ensure adequate documentation
  • Identify key team members
  • Avoid regulatory issues

The key to a successful ACP is thoroughness.

“We need to identify all ingredients in a facility that have allergenic content,” said Topper. “Create a list of ingredients for products that come into the facility.” He also advises facility managers to identify areas of concern in a production environment, to maintain easy-to-clean equipment and to use lot tracking codes to follow products and ingredients through production, storage and shipping.

Topper suggests that raw materials provided by ingredient supplies should be evaluated and audited routinely, and that any formulation changes are provided by suppliers and kept on file.

Other tips that Topper provides include:

  • Color-code storage units and cleaning utensils to differentiate surfaces and items that have come into contact with allergenic content.
  • Segregating allergens is ideal, but if stacking is unavoidable in storage, products containing allergens should be placed on the bottom.
  • Equipment, including air handling systems, should be reviewed annually.
  • During operations, allergenic components should be introduced to the process as late as possible, and whenever possible, allergenic products should not be manufactured prior to non-allergenic ones.
  • Facilities should adopt a standard operating procedure (SOP) for labels. Any formula changes should be properly documented and communicated between manufacturing and labelling; 70% of product recalls are due to labelling errors.
  • In sanitation SOPs, don’t forget to include the best way to clean splash zones, utensils and even employees. Focus on hard-to-clean areas, and have an accident plan.
  • Facilities often validate the effectiveness of their cleaning processes with adenosine triphosphate (ATP) testing. However, an ATP test won’t identify allergens, because ATP isn’t a protein. It’s best to use an antibody specific test, and use ATP tests as supplements.
  • Revalidate cleaning processes when: new products are added; there is a change in the production process, formulation, personnel or in cleaning SOPs; or on a pre-determined basis.

To view the entire presentation, click here.

Neogen offer an extensive line of allergen testing products. Click here for more information.

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