Why Food Safety Businesses Need Allergen Testing Protocols
March 08, 2023
Food allergens are a frequent risk in the food safety industry and to consumers all around the world.
An estimated 3 percent to 10 percent of adults and 8 percent of children worldwide have a food allergy (James, 2021). In a study conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, allergic reactions can range from mild to more severe attacks such as rashes and swelling to more life-threatening cases like anaphylactic shock. Anaphylaxis requires a shot of epinephrine and immediate medical attention. These attacks occur when your immune system reacts to certain allergens in the food you consume or in environments you are exposed to.
According to the Global Food Safety Resource, there are only two ways to eliminate food allergens once it has been introduced to the food production chain: completely discarding a product and disinfecting the environment. Unlike pathogenic bacteria, cooking or antimicrobial applications cannot remove introduced allergens. This is why allergens must be controlled through each stage, from production to consumption. Segregating allergens and implementing proper scientific labeling during food production ensures the safety of consumers and businesses alike. It is imperative that allergens be controlled at each stage of production. Some of the critical control points that relate to allergens are:
- Raw materials/supply chain concerns
- Premises design
- Equipment design
Food allergen testing is necessary for monitoring critical control points for minimizing the chance of contamination.
The Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) is the organization responsible for providing international food standards, guidance, and codes of practice that ensure food safety (James 2021). According to Codex, the following food groups are common allergens and shall always be declared on food labels:
- Cereals containing gluten; i.e., wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, or their hybridized strains and products of these
- Crustacea and products of these
- Eggs and egg products
- Fish and fish products
- Peanuts, soybeans, and products of these
- Milk and milk products (lactose included)
- Tree nuts and nut products; and
- Sulfite in concentrations of 10 mg/kg or more
For food manufacturers here in the Philippines, the most common ingredients that trigger food allergies in Filipinos are:
- Wheat: Commonly found in foods like bread, cereal, and pizza and can cause dermatitis to swollen airways.
- Eggs: The leading cause of eczema attacks in children.
- Crustaceans: Crabs and shrimps.
- Mollusks: Mussels, clams, and similar seafood.
- Milk: Considered one of the top allergies in children.
- Peanuts: Some symptoms run mild, with examples being a runny nose and rashes.
In the Asia Pacific Law Food Guide, the Department of Health set labeling requirements in Administrative Order No. 30-2014– “Revised Rules and Regulations Governing the Labeling of Prepackaged Food Products Further Amending Certain Provisions of Administrative Order No. 88-B s. 1984.” These labeling requirements apply to imported or locally produced food products and supplements distributed in the Philippines.
Consumption of mislabeled or cross-contaminated products can lead to businesses doing massive product recalls and endanger consumers with these mismanaged products, harming their reputation with customers.
In the food safety industry, food allergen analysis is mandatory to establish an ingredient's allergen status. Keep in mind that each allergen testing method yields different results and benefits. But, before all else, you must determine the testing type that best suits your environment. Consider these guide questions:
1. What is your purpose for conducting the allergen swabbing procedure? Do you need to ensure surface sanitation or determine cross-contamination?
2. What and how many allergens are you testing for?
3. How soon do you need the results?
Afterward, you may proceed with either of the following tests:
1. Protein Surface Tests: Popular and reliable are general protein surface tests, which check for protein presence on surfaces. This test type is less sensitive than allergen-specific ones but is still beneficial to safety programs—verifying cleanliness.
2. ELISA Test Kits: Most preferred during food allergen detection and routine analysis is the Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay method, which detects the allergen protein molecule by binding antibodies to the allergen. ELISA test kits discover processed and unprocessed proteins in common allergens, from tree nuts and dairy to shellfish. Furthermore, it accommodates an environmental swab, clean-in-place water, and food samples.
3. Rapid Tests: It detects allergen material in surface, food, and rinse water samples. These are more specific and sensitive than general protein tests, designed for high-stake allergen cleaning and ingredient monitoring. Use them in your testing program if you need to detect the following allergens:
What differentiates rapid tests from general protein swabs is their antibody content, which reacts to small amounts of proteins. Kits designed to detect traces of an ingredient, be it soy or walnuts, will only determine those specific ones. They provide qualitative results—indicating an allergen's absence or presence. Familiarizing yourself with the kind that suits your business will help prevent cross-contamination.
Removing allergens once they are part of the food production chain is impossible, but by properly declaring allergens on food packaging and sticking to a reliable allergen protocol, you not only ensure your business’s reputation, you also safeguard the health and safety of your consumers and secure customer loyalty for your company.