The findings are disclosed in a report by the US Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN), which analyzed data gathered from inspections of 1,842 plants by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The inspections were made between 2002 and 2004 and dealt specificially with allergen controls.
The plants were surveyed to determine whether they followed good manufacturing practices (GMPs) in reducing the risk of allergen contamination. Good manufacturing practices include regular reviews of product labels, equipment, cleaning practices, product handling, and final product and packaging inspection.
Allergen contamination is a big problem for manufacturers, who must make costly recalls if their products contain allergens that are not listed on the label. Just yesterday, Dean Foods was forced to recall its Albertsons brand chocolate ice cream amid fears that the product is contaminated with undeclared almonds.
Food processors made 462 recalls between 1999 and 2004 due to undeclared allergens, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Allergens cause 150 deaths and 30,000 emergency room treatments each year, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
In analyzing the FDA data, CFSAN found that "a high proportion of facilities have cross-contamination control measures in place regardless of whether the firm uses advisory labeling" on its products.
CFSAN also found that: "FDA inspections also suggest that a certain percentage of facilities do not apply control measures in the handling and use of allergens in food, and the degree to which those allergens are associated with adverse health effects, is not known. These gaps do suggest areas for improvement in food manufacturing to protect against allergen cross-contact."
The survey report is a follow-up to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) that came into effect on January 1, 2006. FALCPA requires manufacturers to state if a product contains an ingredient that is or contains protein from a major food allergen.
FALCPA singles out milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, and soybeans as ingredients that producers must list on the label if present. In addition producers use a variety of labeling statements to signal if the product may contain allergens due to cross contamination in the factory.
CFSAN says it is impossible to determine the amount of allergen contamination in the US food supply, but calls on manufacturers to use robust sorting and testing techniques to ensure public safety.
CFSAN found that two of the major issues manufacturers face are machines that are not easily cleanable and machines that encourage the buildup of residual material containing allergens.
Some specific preventative measures in use during food production include the use of dedicated equipment for products containing allergens, and the thorough cleaning of equipment when switching between processing products that contain allergens and those that do not.
CFSAN found that good practices include the immediate separation of allergen products as they arrive at facility. About 55 per cent of surveyed manufacturers divided allergens from other products on arrival and 29 per cent of these manufacturers actively stored these products in quarantined storage tanks.
Most of the surveyed plants had at least one of these manufacturing practices in place. CFSAN did not disclose the number of manufacturers who did not have any measures in place to guard against contamination.
The occurrence of recalls due to allergen contamination is concentrated in the bakery sector. About 30 per cent of all recalls were of bakery products, followed by ice cream, which made up 10 per cent of the recalls.
CFSAN also details the results of a consumer survey on the perception of allergen content in foods based on their labeling. The survey found that consumers become more skeptical of foods when allergy labeling is present.
CFSAN found that "the potential for cross contamination, is one indication of the perceived likelihood of such contamination" in foods.
However, some labels elicited different responses in consumers. For instance, the label "Allergen Information: May Contain Peanuts" was perceived by consumers to be more likely to contain peanuts. However, they perceived that products were be less likely to contain allergens if manufactures used words such as "Manufactured on" and "Producedin".
The USDA has identified about 160 food allergens that can come into contact with consumers. The eight identified in the FALCPA legislation are responsible for 90 per cent of all US reactions, says CFSAN.