Food safety: Why test for coconut?

In 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA), mandating food product labels prominently display the presence of any ingredient from one of the eight major food allergens: peanuts, eggs, milk and milk by-products, wheat, tree nuts, soy, fish and shellfish. These allergens account for 90% of all documented food allergies in the U.S.

Coconut is included as one of the 19 identified tree nuts. In Section 201(qq) of the Act, the FDA says the list reflects its “… best judgment as to those nuts that are ‘tree nuts’…” and “In order to be comprehensive, this list employs broad scientific categories…”.  For years the food industry and scientific community have questioned this classification for coconut, but why?

Coconuts come from palm trees, which are more closely related to grasses than trees. Also, the coconut is not a nut in the botanical sense. It’s classified as a drupe, a fruit with a hard-surrounding layer. From a culinary standpoint, nuts such as almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios and walnuts are actually the seeds of drupes. Furthermore, people with a specific food allergy may have similar reactions to other foods with related allergenic proteins, referred to as cross-reactivity. There have been indications of coconut having cross-reactivity with walnut, hazelnut, almond and macadamia.

Bottom line, all products containing coconut and derived ingredients such as coconut water, sugar, oil, flour and milk sold in the U.S. market, be they locally produced or imported, need to list it on the package ingredients label using the allergen’s “common or usual name” or in a “contains” statement. And while the coconut oil market has flattened recently, the growth for other coconut-derived ingredients shows no signs of slowing.

Orbis Research reports the North American coconut water market, at $1.1 billion in 2017, has a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 20.38% and should reach $4 billion by 2024. The plant-based alternative dairy category also continues to grow. Coconut milk is the second most popular non-dairy milk, with Information Resources, Inc. (IRI) recording sales increases of 5.2% to 5.7% over the past 21 months. The global coconut sugar and flour markets will experience CAGRs around 8% over the next five years, according to market research firm Technavio, resulting from increased awareness of the nutrition and health benefits of both ingredients.

The most recent regulations addressing food allergens were established by the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in 2011. Allergen control is an important aspect of FSMA, affecting sanitary design requirements such that equipment manufacturers shifted focus to include allergens. FSMA addressed allergens within the preventive control rules, requiring operators to understand allergen hazards throughout their facilities and have measures in place to minimize or eliminate them. Food safety plans were rewritten to include allergen controls where applicable.

Other important aspects in allergen control include preventing allergen mislabeling and cross-contamination. Food producers now use visual inspection systems to confirm that a label matches accurately with its respective product. Along with their own operations, manufacturers need to know all products, ingredients and raw materials found or produced in suppliers’ facilities and the allergen content of each.

Allergen testing kits are valuable tools in the food safety arsenal. Testing for the presence of food allergens ensures manufacturers that an unlabeled — and potentially dangerous — ingredient did not make its way into a food product. Specific protein testing is the only recognized method for identifying and controlling allergen risk in food manufacturing. Allergen testing can protect a company from an expensive recall, as well as protect and add to a company’s reputation. Food allergen tests can detect target allergens in ingredients, liquids, clean-in-place rinses, finished foods and on environmental surfaces. Using these tests, producers can screen incoming ingredients and segregate any allergenic materials. They can also be used to validate and verify a facility’s cleaning program.

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