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It’s National Allergy Awareness Week, so let’s talk food allergens!

Mention the word ‘allergy’ and many people automatically think of hay fever, pet hair or dust mites: of sufferers stocking up on nasal sprays, antihistamine tablets or cleaning furiously. Talk about food allergies and the obvious ones that the general public will recognise are peanuts, milk and gluten/wheat.

Allergic reactionAn allergic reaction occurs when the body’s immune system reacts in response to the presence of a substance that it wrongly perceives as a threat. This can manifest itself in many ways, from mild irritation of the skin, constriction of the airways or sneezing, swelling of the lips and eyes, stomach cramps or vomiting, to a full-blown anaphylactic shock.

Statistically speaking around 1 or 2 adults in every hundred has a food allergy. The severity of the allergy varies from person to person, but for those most at risk even the tiniest trace of the allergen could be fatal.

14 main types of allergen

Food manufacturers are required by law to include allergen information on their packaging if their product contains or could contain traces of the 14 types of allergen most likely to cause a severe reaction in sufferers. These are:

  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Molluscs
  • Soya
  • Cereals containing gluten
  • Sesame seeds
  • Mustard
  • Celery and celeriac
  • Sulphur dioxide and sulphites
  • Lupin flour

Hidden ingredients

Several foods contain allergens, but you may not be aware of them at first. A good example is soya which is widely used in foods and is difficult to avoid. As many as 60% of manufactured foods contain soya. It can be ingested as whole beans, soya flour, soya sauce or soya oil. Soya can also be used in foods as a texturiser (texturised vegetable protein), emulsifier (soya lecithin) or protein filler. Soya flour is widely used in foods including; breads, cakes, processed foods (ready meals, burgers and sausages) and baby foods.

Likewise milk can be found in such products as: Breakfast cereals, soups, baby foods, processed meats, e.g. sausages, pasta and pizzas, instant mashed potato, sauces and gravies, baked goods, e.g. rolls, pancakes, batters, ready meals, puddings and custards, cakes, biscuits, crackers, chocolate/confectionery and even crisps!

Why it’s important for food manufacturers to understand allergens and label accordingly

Failing to mention the presence of the allergens above on your food labeling can have serious consequences. In the worst case scenario a consumer could die as a result of eating the product or could have a serious food reaction. If the product gets into the marketplace, then there is the expense and inconvenience of organising a product recall (typically £250,000), as well as the threat of prosecution and civil action and fines from retailers.

As we have seen all too recently, an episode where the product ingredients do not match the label can destroy consumer confidence in a brand and result in loss of business and falling profits.

Controlling allergens

In production facilities where food allergens are present, there needs to be effective allergen control management. Operatives also need to ensure that cross-contamination does not occur, leaving traces of allergens in food which would not ordinarily contain them.  For example: in the case of walnut cake and plain Madeira cake. Typical control measures should include:

  • Risk assessments
  • Supplier controls
  • Production planning
  • Segregated storage
  • Effective cleaning
  • Staff training
  • Segregation during production
  • Colour coding
  • Clear labelling

New Allergen Awareness online course

To help those involved in food manufacture to understand the importance of allergen control in detail, we will shortly be launching a new online course Practical Allergen Controls. This will be in modular format and allow learners to train in their own time. Watch this space for more information.

Creative Legal Labelling course

If you look on the Food Standards Agency’s allergy alert website you will see there are several product recalls every month due to allergen information being incorrect or missing from food labels. To ensure that your product labelling is legally compliant in time for the enforcement of the new Food Information Regulations, why not book onto our two-day Creative Legal Labelling course? Tutored by industry experts it will answer a multitude of questions relating to labelling and will cover detailed information on the new EU and UK Regulations as well as proposed guidance from DEFRA on their implementation. Allergen labelling guidance from the BRC will also be included.

Day 2 will focus on current legislation on labelling and food additives and the marketing aspects of labelling and nutrition & health claims, including guidance on the use of marketing terms such as ‘pure’ ‘fresh’ or ‘natural’.

Given the lead times for generating artwork, order lead times, minimum orders and stockholdings for labels etc. the FIR deadline of December 2014 is edging ever closer.  If you don’t want to be destroying large amounts of obsolete packaging then the time to be training the people with responsibility for labelling is now.  To find out more and book your place, please either call Claire on 01756 700802 or click here.