Food Allergen Program

Eight main food allergens. Image from FDA

Allergens are only dangerous to the person sensitive to the allergen and then the allergen can be deadly. Fortunately we know enough about allergies, people’s responses and how to deal with them that given care, allergy sufferers may avoid their trigger and live happy, healthy, and long lives.

There are many allergens, the FDA lists eight food allergens and mentions that there are 160 foods that have caused an allergic response in sensitive individuals and that is not including those of us who have non allergic sensitivity responses, such as my response to alcoholic beverages. There is some confusion as to how to define a food allergen as sometimes a protein isn’t present and an apparent allergic response happens. Sulfite for example, can cause people to have asthma attacks and it is not a protein. Typically a food allergen causes the histamine response as discussed here.

As a food manufacturers we must do our part to protect consumers. A first step is to know which of our ingredients may cause an allergic response in sensitive consumers. This may be a minor component of an ingredient. Milk, for example, may be present in chocolate chips. This allergen must then be listed on the label for consumers to see. To ensure this happens correctly, requires that we have a standard operating procedure (SOP) to make sure that the right product goes in the right packaging. You don’t want to end up like Frito-Lay with Cheddar Cheese and Sour Cream Ruffles in Original Ruffles bags. This is misbranding and shall lead to a recall and loss of consumer trust; both of which could put a small food business out of business. 

As well as labeling, you also need to have Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and SOPS for managing allergens in your facility. This will make sure that you don’t accidentally have cross contact between a food containing an allergen and one that doesn’t. For example, this includes the cleaning and sanitation of your equipment and utensils thoroughly. 

When storing allergens, ensure that allergens, and ingredients containing allergens, are stored below other ingredients. One way to do this is to clearly label your ingredients on arrival with different colored stickers for each allergen type as this clearly shows what is in each package or on each pallet.

Shows how different colored stickers can be sued to represent different allergens
Allergens can be represented by stickers on ingredient packaging. (a) Write a letter code in the middle of the sticker to represent which tree nut, shellfish or fish. For example W= walnut

When ordering supplies, check that your ingredients or packaging haven’t changed. My experience has been that very occasionally suppliers will change how they make something which may lead to problems if you are caught unawares. 

Make sure your co-workers, sanitation team, pest control contractor and others commonly in your facility understand your allergen policy. If you are making a food that is free from an allergen, it is probably worth banning that ingredient from your facility. Schools, for example, do not allow peanuts in the school.

There are a lot of little ways to support your consumers with food allergies. The best way to ensure consumer safety is to work directly with me to create a comprehensive allergen policy that brings all these pieces together. Book a call today so we can get the process started.

Food Safety Mid Atlantic. This image explains that I offer food safety services.

FAO Reports Discuss 2020 Food and Agriculture

What people eat, and how that food is produced, not only affects their health, but also has major ramifications for the state of the environment and for climate change.

FAO 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition

The truth of this quote was apparent when reading both of the FAO’s 2020 reports on the state of the food system. 

Access to Water

Field with overhead irrigation. Not an option for many farmers.
Irrigation is not an option for many farmers. Image from Pixabay.

HARM Part 4: Hurdle Technology

I have written three articles about how we can use food processing to make our food safer and I call these the HARM series because Heat, Acid and Reduced Moisture are the main ways we can reduce the risk of foodborne illness. There are other ways, such as adding preservatives, high pressure processing, or specialized packaging which require specialized equipment or food science knowledge and typically are not what I would suggest first to my clients. 

HARM Part 3! Reduced Moisture

In my last blog post I discussed the safety of fruit and vegetables and the importance of acidity in their food safety. I referred back to “A” post of my HARM series. I realized that I never finished the series as there is no “RM” post. The pandemic obviously affected more than my ability to visit my clients.

Reducing the moisture content or lowering how much water is present is, along with heating and adding acid, another way of extending the shelf life of food products and preventing foodborne illness. 

A line of jams in bottles. Hot fill requires the food to be hot when put in the hot jars.
Jams have lots of sugar which reduces the available moisture content. Image from Pixabay.

Bacteria and other microbes need water to survive just like we do. Reducing your moisture content can make your food safer and extend its shelf life.

One way to reduce the moisture content is dehydration. However, I personally don’t want all my food to be like packaged camp food. The good news is that we don’t have to! We do not have to completely dehydrate a food product to stop microorganisms from growing in it.

How do we know how much to reduce the moisture content to stop microorganisms?

Safety of Fresh Fruit and Vegetables

Once you have harvested your produce, how you handle them can reduce bacterial pathogens. Image from Pixabay

In the last month there have been two state recalls or outbreaks around juices. The first was juice not being processed adequately to destroy Clostridium botulinum or its toxin and the second was an outbreak of Salmonella in Minnesota originating at a raw juice bar. When discussing this with my friends who are not food scientists, [yes, I have a few non food sciencey friends] I discovered that they weren’t aware that fruit and vegetables have natural bacteria and other microorganisms present on their surfaces. These microbes could cause foodborne illness.

Quality Assurance and Quality Control

We end up with piles of paperwork if we don't do quality control properly
Piles of paperwork do not have to be the result of a good QA/QC program. Image from Pixabay.

The next step after deciding your product specifications is to ensure that your products leaving your facility ALWAYS meet your specifications. Large food manufacturers have Quality Assurance (QA) and Quality Control (QC) Departments who carry out this role. They are often combined into one QA/QC division which carries out both functions of preventing defects and taking action when a defect occurs.

Quality Assurance prevents defects by organizing a system of checks, tests, and audits. These ensure that quality standards are defined and that basic food productions principles, as described in GMPs, are followed. Thus, QA includes the GMPS, SOPS, SSOPS, ingredient and product specifications, food safety and HACCP plans. 

Food thermometer in orange juice.
Measuring temperature is an important quality control step. Image by Cathy Davies

Quality Control is the monitoring procedures that verify and validate that the processes and procedures described by Quality Assurance are followed. Quality Control is the thermometer to check production temperature, the test strip to check sanitizer concentration, the microbial tests to check food is pathogen free. This monitoring and record keeping is also a legal requirement and can be used to update QA practices when failures are common.

Both QA and QC can be used to train employees to improve the safety and quality of the products they are responsible for making. The final decision for whether a product is sent to a customer should be made by the QA/QC manager. Legally, business owners and CEOs are responsible for the safety of the products leaving the facility. Most often they rely on their QA/QC department to do their jobs professionally and reliably. 

Small food business, with few coworkers, may struggle to carry out QA-QC responsibilities as they seem like an additional chore. However, QA/QC can improve and tighten up the quality of your food products as, over time, you see where defects commonly occur. Additionally, this responsibility can be shared. Hiring a full time QA/QC manager can be expensive especially one who has the experience to have the experience, personal authority, and confidence to say “This product cannot be shipped”. A solution to this is a part-time consultant, who has the experience and authority but costs less than hiring a full-time co-worker. Interested? Book a call now!

Definition of Food Quality

Some white, mostly black peppercorns. What is your ingredient specification?
How many white peppercorns is acceptable for a high quality black pepper? Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Last week I came up with my definition for food safety. Did you agree? I realized that I also needed a definition for food quality. Food quality is pretty vague as it depends on so many different factors. We quite often link food quality and food safety because a food containing hazards isn’t of a high quality.

As food processors and food manufacturers, the most important quality specification is based on our consumer’s needs and desires. Consumers may base their idea of a high quality food on many different factors. Price or good value for money is probably the most important, even though a lot of us won’t admit that openly. As consumers, we may also be concerned about how the food product was made and whether it is organic or has certain health attributes. 

Defining Food Safety

Food safety represented by someone checking the temperature of cooking meat.
Do we all agree that this is food safety? Image by Ahmad Ardity from Pixabay

For my book, I am looking for definitions for topics that I, as a food scientist, might consider obvious. Thus, last week I found myself looking for a definition of food safety. This was not something I thought would be hard to find. However, I couldn’t find a decent definition in introductory food science textbooks. There are many people and organizations are involved in food safety. Surely one of them has a good generally understandable definition of food safety? 

Food from Unsafe Sources: CDC Risk Factor #5

A view of a market stall with lots of colorful fruit and vegetables.
Where we get our food from is an important decision. Image from Pixabay.

When I was a graduate student, I visited Malta and I bought home nougat for my friends. Only to find when I gave it to my friends that there were ants in the packet. Ugh, some gift that turned out to be. Make sure you know the source of all your ingredients and check that they don’t have ants and that the package is intact when you receive them. 

Many small food businesses start out buying ingredients from their local supermarket. We can trust food bought at the supermarket because it has been manufactured and packaged by businesses that have to follow federal food safety regulations. However, as you grow this might not be the best source of your ingredients and you may need to buy greater quantities than they keep in stock. As you buy larger quantities of ingredients, you need to consider your supply chain program.

To support the local food system, you may also buy from small local farms and food businesses. You must ensure their practices meet your standards for food safety and that the farmer is following food safety procedures and good handling practices and you receive the best quality ingredients. 

The best way to ensure that your ingredients come from a safe source is to have a list of approved suppliers. These are farms, local businesses, supermarkets that you have checked to make sure they handle your ingredients to maintain their quality and safety.

Blueberries representing local agriculture.
Blueberries: What do you expect when you buy blueberries? Image by Kai Reschke from Pixabay

Individually checking each supplier can get time consuming and you can ask each farmer or supplier if they follow certain standards. For example, you can ask for their food safety plan or for their third party audit.

In addition to having an approved supplier list, you also need standards for each ingredient. You can ask your suppliers to provide a certificate of analysis (CoA) to come with each batch of ingredients. For example, if you use peanuts, you will want to make sure that they are free of aflatoxin, a known carcinogen. Many peanut farmers and distributors test for aflatoxins and provide certificates to their buyers.

A supply chain program is required as part of the FSMA regulations and restaurants are expected to have an approved supplier list too. Not sure how to start to set up an approved supplier program? Let’s chat so I can support you.

Image says "Be Safe, Wash your damn hands, wear a mask, eat healthy"