Even a small bit of peanut can cause a recall: Why you must fight allergens in baking

By Hal Conick

- Last updated on GMT

Even a small amount of nuts in an allergy-free product could cause big problems.
Even a small amount of nuts in an allergy-free product could cause big problems.

Related tags Food allergies Food allergy Asthma Allergy

There’s no one size fits all approach to stopping allergens from making their way into baked goods, but one researcher says manufacturers must put many safeguards, including training, in place to help mitigate risk.

Joseph Baumert, Ph.D at the Department of Food Science and Technology as well as the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said in a talk at the 2015 Process Expo that bakers and other food manufacturers face risk of recall, loss of customers, and even possible lawsuits if even a tiny amount of allergen slip into a product.

Looking at where risk can occur in the baking process, Baumert said nothing can be overlooked. There can be cross-contamination, introduction of allergens into the process and other problems. His main suggestion is training and retraining every worker in the facility, as each manufacturer is “only as good as the weakest link”.

Gating and cleaning are essential steps

Other problems in the process include inadequate cleaning of shared equipment and packaging errors. For this, he said facilities could dedicate a single system or line to a food allergen, if they have the capacity. Otherwise, it may be good to use scheduling and regular cleaning audits to help ensure lines are properly cleaned and an allergen is not making its way into a free-from product.

Baumert also believes there must be an allergen gating process, which means an in-depth review of potential new products before starting production.

“What this gating process should do is look at how to create a dialog between product developers as well as the operations,”​ he said, adding that communication is a must when reducing allergens in baked products.

It also becomes important to question suppliers about what allergens they use in their facilities, whether they have an allergen control plan, and if they use a validated cleaning procedure. Baumert recommended asking suppliers to give three-to-six months of lead time to make adjustments in case there is a change in the supplier’s ingredients or processes.

Bakers must show special care to allergy increase

A special level of attention must be paid to food allergies in the baking and confectionery industries. Baumert said baked products, chocolate and confectionery treats were the majority food allergy recalls from the US Food and Drug Administration.

Awareness is especially important, as there has been an 18% increase in children under 18 affected by food allergies. Whether this is due to better diagnoses, better awareness or an unknown factor is not important; what is important is that food allergies is the most common form of anaphylaxis in US emergency rooms, making up 30% of these hospital visits. They also account for 100 to 500 deaths per year in the US.

Looking further into the recalls, Baumert said milk, wheat and soy tend to be the top offender ingredients. However, the No. 1 cause of recall, getting the wrong product in the wrong package or putting the wrong label on a product, has more to do with sloppy packaging than poor processing.

“These are things we think we can control well, but it continues to be an issue that we have​,” he said.

No risk is too small, Baumert said. Looking at the example of a peanut, the most sensitive individuals can react to 0.4mg of a whole peanut, which is roughly 0.1mg of a peanut. There are a variety of ways individuals are impacted, but even one slip-up or recall may haunt a manufacturer for years.

There are a growing number of consumers who suffer from food allergies now, he said, including 10m to 14m (3.5% to 4%) in the US alone. Children have a higher percentage, as 6% to 8% suffer from allergies.

Customers who ingest allergens face sickness and in a worst-case scenario, perhaps even death.

“That’s a key issue that we need to manage,” ​he said during his Food Allergen Control Strategies ​session. “You do not want your product associated with a fatality.”

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