This week (24-30 April) is Allergy Awareness Week. This year’s campaign focuses on food allergies, especially amongst children. Around 8% of children in the UK have a food allergy. Interestingly, babies who are born with eczema or who develop it as babies are more likely to suffer from food allergies as children.
What are the symptoms of food allergies?
Some people have more severe reactions to food allergens than others. There are a variety of symptoms, from rashes and hives, mild discomfort or upset stomachs to swollen lips, serious breathing difficulties and anaphylaxis. If someone suffering an anaphylactic shock is not treated in a timely manner through use of an Epipen, food allergies can prove fatal. That’s why it’s really important that food manufacturers, retailers and caterers understand the importance of food allergen training.
Which are the most common food allergies?
Almost everybody is aware of peanut allergies. Other ingredients featuring in the top ten list of food allergens include eggs, fish, cow’s milk, wheat (gluten) crustaceans and soya. But did you know that there are in fact 14 common allergens which must be highlighted on all food labelling? The rest of them are mustard, celery, sulphites, lupin, tree nuts (such as hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios etc.) molluscs and sesame. In fact it was the undeclared inclusion of sesame in a pre-packaged sandwich that eventually led to Natasha’s Law being passed.
How to manage food allergens in food manufacturing
From a manufacturing perspective it is in a company’s best interests to manage any food allergens they have on site. Even the smallest amount of allergen in food can trigger a serious reaction, so it’s important that food companies have stringent processes and procedures in place to avoid cross-contamination and ensure accurate labelling of ingredients.
The majority of product recalls and withdrawals listed on the Food Standards Agency’s website relate to incorrect labelling of allergens. As any manufacturer will know, recalls and withdrawals of product can prove costly and can also damage brand reputation – especially if consumers are seriously ill or dies.
‘Hidden’ food allergens
It’s also important to remember that the average consumer might not realise that whey protein, casein or lecithin contain major food allergens. This is why the allergen must be listed in bold or capital letters for every instance where it occurs – even if it might seem obvious, such as ‘cheese (milk).’
Five key aspects of allergen control for food production sites
1. Review your entire supply chain. Look beyond your own situation and make sure that those companies supplying you have robust allergen controls in place
2. Carry out an allergen risk assessment. Potential sources of allergen cross-contamination include processing aids, packaging, air transfer, shared equipment, waste, cleaning, transport, rework, engineers, storage, people. Conduct regular testing.
3. Ensure all recipes and labels are up to date. Review them regularly, especially where ingredient substitutions need to be made. Look for ‘hidden allergens’ such as
4. Integrate allergen management into your HACCP plan. Treat allergen management in the same way that you would treat food safety. Many companies use dedicated production lines for products containing allergens and those which don’t.
5. Train staff in allergen management and labelling law. We can’t stress this enough!
Verner Wheelock has two specialist courses which have been designed specifically for the food industry – Managing Food Allergens in Manufacturing and Legal Labelling. We have also developed an online course for caterers and retailers on the subject of Natasha’s Law.