Food & Nutrition Analysis:

Better allergen testing for the food industry

SAFEGUARDING CONSUMERS AND BUSINESSES

By Dr Mike Bromley, SYNLAB Laboratories

The need for food businesses to have an effective hygiene regime in place to accurately declare food allergens is evident – with poor standards of hygiene and a lack of correct protocols, businesses are simply not able to certify that their products are completely free from any cross-contamination. Recent changes to legislation around food labelling and growing public awareness of food authenticity issues mean it is becoming increasingly important for businesses to have robust allergen management strategies in place in order to protect their customers – and their own reputation.

Between one and five percent of the world’s population have a clinically proven food allergy, with two million people in the UK alone suffering from an allergy that severely affects their life on a daily basis. Whether this is through exposure to allergens or indirectly through the fear of being exposed, the risk presented for individuals with food allergies or intolerances is very real.  Consuming even a small amount of a food allergen can result in severe illness and in some cases, can cause fatal anaphylactic reactions. In fact, recent reports suggest that five to ten people each year die in the UK alone* because of food allergen exposure.

What’s more, for many individuals the amount of allergenic substance within a foodstuff is irrelevant, as some allergies are so severe that even a trace amount of a contaminant can have a devastating effect on the sufferer. This means that the science behind allergen testing needs to be as faultless as possible in order to eliminate risk – and the pressure on food businesses to step up their game is mounting.

It is common knowledge amongst food manufacturers that there is a risk of cross-contamination between a specific food product and a common allergen such as nuts or peanuts. These risks are traditionally conveyed to customers via advisory warning statements such as “may contain nuts” and in recent years this sort of labelling has been extended to include products like sesame seeds, egg, milk, fish, and shellfish. Whilst some food producers and retailers are already using advisory labelling to warn consumers about such risks, there is growing concern about the overuse of such labelling, which can be seen as a tactic used by businesses to protect their reputation. As such, this ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach will no longer meet the required expectations of the savvy and vocal consumers of today.  Public awareness of food safety has never been greater thanks to global media reporting and what’s more, social media has given consumers worldwide a platform to air their outrage towards businesses who are perceived as being negligent, deceptive – or simply not doing enough to cater for and inform consumers with allergies.

Since the introduction of new legislation in December 2014, it is now required by law that all pre-packaged foods and foods sold loose should be clearly labelled with any potential allergens. All food providers including manufacturers, supplies, caterers and retailers need to communicate with customers where any of the 14 most common allergens are present, or risk facing a large fine. In short, these factors mean it is becoming essential for businesses to incorporate robust allergen management procedures into health and safety policies.  Actively avoiding cross contamination and using appropriate advisory labelling will help businesses ensure their customers are confident in purchasing and consuming their products.

With the food on our shelves and plates coming from an ever-increasing number of sources worldwide, the number of possible contaminants is vast, and yet the industry’s capability to detect them has become increasingly limited by the existing technologies on offer. While risks can be reduced with internal risk analysis, increased supplier checks, regular auditing, and staff training, it’s essential for all B2B and B2C food businesses to continually measure the effectiveness of the procedures they have in place – and improve them where necessary. Even the most experienced and diligent of organisations can fall foul of complacency laws so it’s crucial for businesses at each step of the supply chain to be extremely vigilant and ensure they have best-practice procedures in place.

Unless businesses employ dedicated, on-site technical staff teams to ensure each allergen-detection procedure is followed rigorously, it’s possible that some things may be missed or overlooked. However, the sheer level of industry experience, scientific expertise training and knowledge of legislation needed by such employees is vast and subsequently employing an in-house team to carry out this function is unsurprisingly a very costly option.  With this in mind, it’s certainly worth considering calling on outside resource and support in order to ensure compliancy and to safeguard the business as a whole.

The good news for the industry is that advancements in technology means that new products are available on the market which allow thorough and reliable allergen testing for all 14 contaminants laid out in the most recent legislation. The even better news, particularly for smaller businesses with tighter budget restrictions, is that these technologies are both affordable and accessible. At SYNLAB, we are experts in allergen testing and offer a vast range of comprehensive allergen testing covering the 14 allergens pin-pointed by the 2014 legislation as well as several more. The emergence of fast and affordable testing methodologies like this means that companies of all sizes and at each stage of the supply chain should be able to minimise the risks outlined above, ensuring they are demonstrating awareness and care around allergen issues such as cross-contamination.

All food businesses along the supply chain need to establish a suitable health and safety policy that includes a robust allergen management plan – and manufacturers need to not only assess the allergen status of ingredients for use in their own premises, but place the same level of scrutiny on the ingredients supplied by any suppliers, contractors, or partners.  For compliancy it’s essential for food businesses to be aware of the presence – or potential presence – of major allergens within food products at all stages of the food chain; from harvesting and transport through to manufacturing and packing.  Whether it be through audits or from asking suppliers to provide the required information. Manufacturers should ensure that materials are ordered against a clear specification and that they ask appropriate questions of their suppliers. In order to ensure this is happening, third party support may be the best option for many UK businesses.

Dr Mike Bromley was the founder of Genon Laboratories, now part of SYNLAB, and he is a lecturer in Medical Mycology at the University of Manchester.

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