Our scientific understanding of the risks posed by food allergens has grown steadily over the last twenty years. Between two and four percent of Europe’s population (10-20 million) suffer from a food allergy and this number is higher among children (five to eight percent), many of whom tend to outgrow their allergy.
In continental Europe, the most common food allergies among children are to eggs, cow’s milk and tree-nuts, while among adults, they are to fresh fruit, nuts and vegetables. The extent of an allergic reaction depends largely on the individual concerned and at present, no cure exists for food allergies, so consumers must be aware of the ingredients in the foods they eat.
In addition, due to an increasingly complex global food supply chain, it is important that food manufacturers have a thorough understanding of where to look to prevent any potential cross-contamination between ingredients which cause allergies and those which do not.
During the manufacturing process, food products can come into contact with trace amounts of allergen-causing ingredients via cross contamination of raw ingredients, manufacturing lines and also workers in the manufacturing facility. Certain methods of food processing may enhance, reduce, or eliminate the allergenic potential of a food product.
Allergen Management System
Europe has a competent allergen management system and the European Union has published a list of allergens which may pose a risk, something which many other countries around the world have yet to do.
Europe’s food industry, recognising that food allergies and intolerances are a food safety issue for all those concerned, believes that allergen management should be an integrated part of overall food safety assurance strategies. As such, the industry has made significant efforts to reduce the unintended exposure of allergic consumers to major allergens.
Food manufacturers, as required under EU law, have robust inventory and traceability systems to ensure the full implementation of EU legislation on allergens, including tracking changes in the formulation of manufactured foods products.
Guidance For Manufacturers
FoodDrinkEurope, the trade body representing Europe’s food and drink industry, has taken concrete steps to aid its members in their efforts to provide safe nutritious food and drink products which meet the diverse dietary requirements of Europe’s 500 million consumers.
A prime example of the organisation’s efforts in this area is the ‘Guidance on Food Allergen Management for Food Manufacturers’, developed over the past four years under the direction of its Allergen Expert Group.
A number of guides on allergens have been published in the past by national agencies, industry and consumer groups. However, in developing the guidance, the organisation identified the need for a consolidated guidance document which would identify and share best practices and provide up-to-date information on risk assessment, good manufacturing practices and analytical protocols.
The first of its kind, the guidance sets out, in a clear, user-friendly format, general principles to manage specific prepacked foods causing allergy or certain intolerances. It also provides sound, evidence-based and consistent information on good practice in risk management of allergenic foods for producers.
Harmonising and disseminating good practice across Europe’s food industry at all levels, the guidance ensures a consistent understanding of, and approach to, managing allergens and certain food-causing intolerances among Europe’s food manufacturers, helping to minimise the risk to allergic consumers and enabling them to make informed product choices.
The guidance provides food manufacturers with a detailed step-by-step approach to managing allergens, from supplier management, to raw materials handling, all the way down to final product development and documentation.
In addition, it features practical information for food manufacturers on cleaning, validation and verification, as well as technical and detailed reference information on food allergies, intolerances and gluten-free products.
The guidance can be readily adapted to different production processes and production facility designs to provide relevant information about food allergens and to indicate their importance as food safety hazards.
The guidance was developed for European food producers who, from December 2014, will be required under the EU’s Food Information to Consumers Regulation to mention on pack, allergens named in an EU approved list.
The guidance could, however, be applied worldwide in any country whose regulatory regime requires allergen labelling on food products. The guidance can also serve as a type of hazard analysis of critical control points (HACCP) for allergen management. Europe’s food industry already has much experience in the application of HACCP and other such risk assessment techniques and tools.
In developing the guidance, the organisation worked closely with many sectors across the entire food industry to develop multi-functional expertise covering a range of matters, including:
- Risk assessment;
- Good manufacturing practices;
- Methods of analysis; and
- Allergic consumer perspectives.
Through the guidance, the organisation aimed to create an equivalent to its Acrylamide Toolbox, designed to assist individual manufacturers (including SMEs with limited R&D resources) in reducing acrylamide formation in their specific manufacturing processes and products, in line with the latest developments in science.
The toolbox was updated in 2011 with the latest scientific research and feedback from food operators and like the Guidance, is available to download for free online.
It is very difficult to ensure that a food product is entirely allergen-free, therefore food allergen management must be an integral part of overall food safety management. While current practices to manage major allergens have increased the safety of food products for allergic consumers, the lack of an agreed approach to quantitative risk assessment has led to uncertainties for both food manufacturers and enforcement bodies.
This has led to an increase in precautionary allergen labelling, which reduces the choice of products available to allergic consumers, in turn resulting in frustration and risk-taking behaviour, which negates its purpose.
Precautionary labelling has an important role to play in protecting allergic consumers, but to fulfil that role, it must be applied consistently, in accordance with defined and agreed principles.
The guidance, which has already been communicated broadly to food industry operators, risk assessors, regulators and consumer and patient groups, will play an important role in this respect.