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Food Allergen Management

Posted on January 27, 2014 in Articles

Allergens are materials that can cause an adverse reaction in certain people. These can be found in a variety of sources, such as dust mite excretion, pollen, pet dander, certain foods and others. The allergy is caused by the body immune system producing antibodies of immunoglobulin Ig E in reaction to such materials by certain individuals. These IgE antibodies then cause a release of powerful cellular chemicals resulting in symptoms of allergic reactions.

Food allergens are usually proteins in foods that cause an allergic reaction. These reactions can range from hives, nausea, stomach cramps, breathing difficulties and in the worst case, death caused by anaphylactic shock. People with an allergic reaction view these food proteins as invaders and reacts by producing Ig E. 

Food intolerance produces some similar allergic symptoms but the body immune system is not activated. This could be due to the body having inadequate enzymes to process the foods, chemical sensitivities or a reaction to cereal gliadin protein due to genetic disorders in Celiac disease. 
The United States Food and Drug Administration recognizes eight foods as being common for allergic reactions in a large segment of the sensitive population in the USA. These include peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, milk, shellfish, fish, wheat and their derivatives, and soy and their derivatives. Sulfites which are chemical based and often found in flavours and colours in foods also cause food intolerances at 10ppm and over. In view of the differences in the genetic profiles of mankind and different levels of exposure to specific foods due to different dietary habits, different countries may recognize different allergens causing food allergies. 
In Malaysia, the Ministry of Health requires food allergen labelling for cereals, nuts, peanuts, soybeans, fish, crustaceans, molluscs, milk and eggs. The FSANZ or Food Standards Australia and New Zealand identifies that milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, sesame, soy and wheat require allergen labelling. In the UK the allergen list would include gluten, crustaceans, molluscs, eggs, fish, peanuts, nuts, soybeans, milk, celery, mustard, sesame, lupin and sulphur dioxide at levels above 10mg/kg, or 10 mg/litre, expressed as SO2. However, some ingredients derived from the listed allergenic foods are so highly processed that they are no longer capable of triggering an adverse reaction. A list of exemptions was published in Directive 2007/68/EC in November 2007. In Japan mandatory allergen labelling includes eggs, milk/dairy, wheat, shrimp/prawn, crab, buckwheat and peanut while other foods such as abalone, squid, salmon roe, oranges, kiwifruit, beef, walnuts, salmon, mackerel, soybeans, chicken, bananas, pork, matsutake mushrooms, peaches, yams, apples, and gelatine are recommended for labelling although not mandatory. As such a food and beverage exporter needs to be aware of the allergen country legal requirements for sale to ensure compliance. As these legal requirements change over time, it is important to stay updated.

Reportable Food Registry on Food Safety Hazards 2009/2010 from US FDA
In the USA and UK, one of the major reasons for product recalls is due to food allergens being undeclared, incorrectly declared or cross contaminated. The table from the Reportable Food Registry taken from 2009/2010 reflects this.  
While complying with allergen and sensitive chemical labelling legislation is essential for doing business, it is not sufficient as cross contamination may occur at the site, upstream at the supplier and downstream during transportation. Measures taken would include supplier and transportation controls, appropriate storage, proper operational practices, suitable equipment and building designs, effective cleaning, traffic controls, training, verification, validation and other steps. Even at the product design stages, the control of allergens can be managed to remove, use minimally or have allergens substituted to aid in allergen management. Purchasing, quality assurance, production, research and development, warehousing, maintenance and engineering staff members all play important roles for the controls of allergens at site.

Food allergen management will continue to receive global focus as more food supplies cross borders between countries. Countries are likely to identify possibly more food allergens for controls with increasing research and statistics collated. New testing methods would be developed for detection. As of this stage, LC-MS-MS = Liquid chromatography-Mass Spectrometry-Tandem Mass Spectrometry is already in use in certain countries. 
As a food or beverage producer, it is important that rigorous steps are taken to manage food allergens at site for both regulatory and profitability reasons. 

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