Food Safety Magazine

Process Control | April/May 2015

Food Companies & Food Allergies: Unite!

By Tracy Bush

Food Companies & Food Allergies: Unite!

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 12 million Americans have food allergies. That means about one in every 25 Americans has a food allergy, and that number increases in children under the age of 3, when it is about one in every 17 infants. CDC also notes that the prevalence of food allergies appears to be on the rise.[1] With this increase, there has been a noticeable trend of companies becoming more allergy-aware to keep their customers happy and safe. But there exist areas of weakness in the industry’s approach to allergen management. I am happy to share that there are some simple ways for any company to stay on top of what’s new within the world of food allergies and support the food-allergic community at the same time (see “Tips for Foodservice Companies: Safeguarding Your Gluten-Allergic Customers,”[2]).

Tips for Foodservice Companies: Safeguarding Your Gluten-Allergic Customers

Just because a label says “wheat-free” doesn’t mean it’s “gluten-free.” Since there are no uniform labeling standards, different manufacturers use different symbols. As a result, wheat-free and gluten-free symbols can look similar. Additionally, products labeled wheat-free may still contain rye- or barley-based ingredients that are not gluten-free. When choosing gluten-free products, it is of the utmost importance to read the label carefully for the words “gluten-free.”

In a perfect world, gluten-free food production has a dedicated facility. Since that’s not always possible, a common facility or foodservice operation should use the following:

•    Separate food preparation zones and storage areas

•    Accurately labeled containers that are tightly sealed

•    Separate utensils for food preparation and serving

•    Clean hands, fresh gloves and clothing

•    Controlled airflow that minimizes airborne particles landing on gluten-free food

•    Thorough cleaning between runs or sessions with wet-cleaning systems

•    An allotment of at least 24 hours between regular and gluten-free food preparation to allow flour particles to settle and then be cleaned away.

As cross-contamination of gluten-free foods can cause severe reactions in those with celiac disease, it’s important to note the most common sources of cross-contact:

•    Shared use of utensils, containers, appliances or baking equipment

•    Airborne particles from wheat, rye, barley or untested oat flour

•    Incomplete cleaning of utensils, equipment or surfaces between runs

•    Contaminated gloves or clothing in gluten-free preparation areas

•    Unsafe or careless food handling by employees or diners

To avoid such cross-contact, it is critical for foodservice personnel to ensure that:

•    Buffet tables have clearly marked, separate areas for gluten-free food

•    Each food has a separate servicing bowl with a clearly marked serving utensil

•    Dishes are arranged so that regular food doesn’t spill, splatter or fall onto gluten-free food (e.g., making sure containers of regular food are not adjacent to gluten-free food)

•    Gluten-free food is served on plates, bowls or napkins of different colors (e.g., bread baskets with gluten-free bread have a different-colored napkin than baskets containing regular bread)

•    Gluten-free food is shaped differently (e.g., gluten-free cake is served in rounds, while regular cake is served in squares)

Some institutions serve the occasional gluten-free guest by purchasing ready-made foods or baked goods from approved gluten-free suppliers. Others keep small-scale gluten-free mixes on hand to bake as needed. Establishments serving larger groups of guests regularly requiring gluten-free foods may bake from scratch using gluten-free bulk ingredients and their own in-house recipes or recipes adapted from gluten-free cookbooks. Your particular organization and the needs of your guests will determine which method you choose.

Keep in mind that the following grains are safe for a gluten-free diet: amaranth, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats (tested gluten-free), quinoa, rice, sorghum and teff. All wheat products, including bulgur, durum, emmer, farro, Kamut® grain, semolina and spelt, in addition to barley, rye, triticale and untested oats, should be avoided. When purchasing gluten-free ingredients, ensure that they are tightly sealed and clearly labeled in containers.

Whatever the type or size of your foodservice establishment, it is critical that one person be designated to lead the gluten-free effort. To ensure gluten-free food safety, all staff must be thoroughly trained. Turnover of personnel, menu revisions, ingredient/supplier changes and differences in labeling necessitate ongoing and continual training. Clear guidelines and expectations and regular updates are essential. The words you use to describe your gluten-free offerings to customers must also be reviewed for any legal implications.

Finally, use the “4 Rs” to make sure the gluten-free meal is as safe as it is enjoyable:

•    Refer the food allergy concern or special request to the chef, manager or designated individual

•    Review the food allergy concern or special request with the guest and check ingredient labels

•    Remember to check the preparation procedures for potential cross-contamination

•    Respond to the guest and inform her of your findings, then let her make an informed decision

Armed with accurate information and the proper training, all foodservice institutions can successfully serve their gluten-free customers safe food.

—Bob’s Red Mill[2]

Ask for Help
I am sure many of the people reading this are shaking their heads and claiming, “That’s why I have a marketing team,” but what I am recommending cannot always be found within that team. Although a marketing team can easily give you statistics, what’s trending or even what superfoods are being mentioned at this very moment, it can’t give you the facts behind food allergies and what your company needs to do. Unless one or more members of your marketing gurus are touched by the world of food allergies, there is a vast difference between what can be found on paper and what can be gained from the very people who know what life with food allergies is like. The majority of research and knowledge still shows that most of the population does not understand the extent of allergic reactions or how the reactions can vary in each individual. Most people do not understand that an item produced in the same room as another item can be enough to cause someone’s death from a severe food allergy. Food allergies are that delicate. My advice is to ask those who are directly involved themselves to get honest answers. I guarantee that it will be eye-opening.

Find Your True Partners
There are many places to look within the food allergy community to locate knowledgeable people who want nothing more than to be able to meet with your company. Why? Because their primary goal is to try to make your products safer for everyone, not just people with food allergies. Need a few starting points?

•    Nutrimom–The Food Allergy Liason.[3] I have over 12 years of experience due to my son’s allergies. Over the years, I have developed some great relationships with wonderful companies, and I strive to continue to do so. I have written an e-book, The Stepping Stones to Food Allergies, which has an entire chapter dedicated to products, their ingredients and company contact information. I felt that including as much information as possible about the products would be a great way to give someone newly diagnosed a starting point to foods that have worked well in our family’s journey.

•    The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation. IFIC is dedicated to the mission of effectively communicating science-based information on health, nutrition and food safety for the public good. Visit their food allergy resource page1 to learn more about food allergies.

•    SnackSafely.com. Created by Dave and Deb Bloom, parents of an allergic child, this company was formed for both allergic and nonallergic individuals to access up-to-date allergy-friendly information. Since the start of SnackSafely, they have quickly emerged as one of the most reputable resources for snack lists, education and manufacturer partnerships. Not only do they have wonderful, trustworthy information, but they also continue to advance food safety for food-allergic individuals and their families.

•    AllergyHome.org.[4] An organization started by Drs. Michael Pistiner and John Lee that continues to educate on multiple levels when it comes to food allergies. Not only is this the go-to informational resource for food-allergic families, but their educated contributors allow people from a wide range of areas to gather much needed information to keep others safe. With all of their knowledge, research and expertise, AllergyHome is an untapped access point for companies to find out how to empower younger generations about what to look for in a food product.

•    Jenny Sprague.[5] Founder of the Food Allergy Bloggers Conference and Multiple Food Allergy Help, and an allergic mom, Jenny is a top food allergy resource as well. In addition to her online support, her conference is the ultimate network of allergy-friendly companies, bloggers, parents and those seeking their own answers for their food allergy dilemmas. How can you as a food company approach her for ideas on safety? Just ask her.

•  Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team (F.A.A.C.T.).[6] In my opinion, this is the fastest-growing food allergy resource team out there yet! F.A.A.C.T. has quickly built a supportive track record for allergy advocacy on many fronts. Not only do they strive to help families, but they also extend their expertise to companies and organizations in need of support. Unsure if they can help your facility? Reach out to them; your company’s allergy safety will never be the same.

•      Robyn O’Brien.[7] I believe that part of our allergen issues begins with where our foods are coming from and how they are produced. Robyn O’Brien is the key to unlocking the answers to the questions your company may have on how to improve this portion of your safety issues. She has a clear message of how companies can benefit from advancing their products with improved choices of ingredients. Feeling a bit insecure about your current allergy safety procedures now?

•    Your customers. For a constant, reliable and honest strategy to keep your allergy safety issues at bay, simply keep your consumers involved. Does this seem too easy? Yes, it is, but it’s also sorely needed. To a family with food allergies, a company that approaches them and asks them to become a part of what it can do to improve its relationship with them is a dream come true. Send out surveys, offer coupons for a few minutes of their time, include a comments area on your website or be honest and share your concerns with everyone, asking what you can do to improve. Connecting with those people does make a difference.

Labeling Basics
For any company to become not only food law-compliant but also to be seen as a producer that strives to display its food allergy safety practices, labeling is one of the must-dos. Food labels are now part of consumers’ everyday shopping habits. Whether it be for possible allergens or to view any other potential red flags, your company’s label is the first line of information to everyone picking up your package. Consider your label part of what consumers are researching: One typo, one wrong ingredient statement or even the lack of an ingredient can cause an endless flood of concerned people knocking at your door. What items should be in each and every label?

•    Allergens. You would assume this is a given, but never assume. Currently, the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires that an item containing an ingredient with protein from a major food allergen be visible in the ingredient label. There are eight allergens included in this list, which are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy, but gluten was recently added as well (voluntary, not mandatory). For more information, please visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s website (www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/default.htm).

•    Production. Does your facility produce items both with and without allergenic ingredients? This is always one of those areas that makes a potential customer put the item back on the shelf if there is not precise wording on who, what, where and when. Consumer concerns include the following:

    1. Are the ingredients processed on shared equipment?

    2. If shared equipment is being used, what is your procedure to ensure cross-contamination does not occur?

    3. What is your company’s method of cleaning and sterilizing the equipment?

    4. Are the food items being run at the same time, the same days of the week and/or in the same room or facility?

    5. How does your company test for allergy compliance within these products and how often?

    6. At what percentage of allergens per volume or serving does your company gauge a product safe or unsafe for allergic consumers?

•    Clear & Precise Information. Consumers—all consumers, not just those with food allergies—appreciate clearly labeled packages. The easier it is for a consumer to get the information that is important to him or her, the more willing he or she will be to purchase that item rather than put it back, try to remember what the item is and (hopefully) find the time to research that item through your company’s website and/or customer service department. Keep in mind that this is more than just allergenic ingredients—today’s shopper looks at everything from where the ingredients were sourced and processed to which affiliations the product is associated with. Just because your label looks pretty does not mean it’s easy to understand. Part of label reading for the allergenic-ingredient seekers is being bombarded with other ingredients that are unknown as well (artificial colors and flavors, etc.). Chances are that a label that also contains multiple, unhealthy ingredients may also lead a customer to believe that using cheaper, unhealthier ingredients is more of a habit for your company than actually caring about what goes into your products.

Show Your True Colors and Own Them
Once your company has checked over its products, reviewed its labels and discussed all of its concerns with the recommended people, go forward and stay true to your word. Nothing is more frightening or looks less transparent than a company that does not practice what it preaches. It takes only one time for an allergy recall to cause another innocent, unnecessary death, and personally, my child’s life is and always will be worth so much more than the value of any product that may or may not be safe anymore.

For our family and many alike, the companies that have recall after recall are kept on a well-known list, but it’s the list of products we will never use again. Every single company within the food industry has a choice of how it wants to be remembered. If your child has food allergies, would you trust your own companies’ products as safe? Do you feel confident in the way your facility handles the production and concerns of cross-contamination? Are you proud to say that your employees are thoroughly educated on how to avoid coming into contact with allergenic ingredients? If you answered no to any of these questions, I believe you know what your next step is. The positive news is that we, the allergic consumers (even the ones without food allergies), already know you can do better and that is why we ask so much of you. The organizations that give every ounce of their power to make change happen exist to help companies do the very same thing. Imagine the immense power that would be felt if everyone used this power together to change—I already can.   

Tracy Bush is the founder and president of Nutrimom—Food Allergy Liason.

References
1. www.foodinsight.org/Food_Allergy_Resource_Page.
2. Craig, B. 2012. Training is a key component in serving patrons with food allergies. Food Safety Magazine 18(4):12–14, 82.
3. allergyphoods.com/.
4. www.AllergyHome.org.
5. www.multiplefoodallergyhelp.com/.
6. www.foodallergyawareness.org/.
7. www.robynobrien.com/.

> Categories: Contamination Control: Allergens; Food Types: Ingredients; Process Control: Packaging