Everyone in the business of food has to deal with allergens. Restaurants, supermarkets, bakeries, c-stores — they carry a responsibility to know exactly what is and is not in the food they are selling to their customers.
While every operation listed above faces its own challenges in working with and around allergens, the argument can be made that it impacts commissaries and central kitchens even more. Not only are commissaries responsible for producing the food that makes its way to retailers — whether it’s by baking, assembling, grilling, cooking or more — but that food can be ever-changing. If a customer decides it wants a new salad with walnuts, the commissary is charged with doing everything it can to provide it. Not to mention, the facility is likely already dealing with countless ingredients used to make dozens of dishes for multiple customers.
Most facilities likely already have procedures in place to deal with allergens and the growing base of consumers who are allergen-sensitive. But Joe Stout, president of commercial sanitation for Commercial Food Sanitation — and industry expert on sanitation and food safety — talked with Commissary Insider to go over some important steps and ideas to make sure your game plan is solid.
“Today, there is a much higher level of sensitivity when it comes to allergens,” says Stout, who points out that his two daughters are celiac patients. “The industry has done a really good job teaching, especially at commissaries and restaurants, the importance of allergens. When my girls were diagnosed 12 or 15 years ago, you’d go out to eat and talk to the waiter, or the cook or manager, and they really didn’t know how to deal with it. Today, people have a lot of help with selections. Most everyone has gluten-free or allergen-free items. A lot has been done for those allergen-sensitive patients and it’s really appreciated.”
Train the trainer
Stout says one of the most important parts of better equipping your facility to deal with allergens is simply providing the right leadership and education for your employees.
“It’s kind of a ‘train the trainer’ approach,” he says. “You need to help with allergens, but without giving employees crisp, clear directions on what to do and when to do it, that education and training ends up being meaningless.”
Video material is crucial. It can often help employees become aware of the seriousness of allergens, Stout says. “The hard part is getting the right video material,” he says, mentioning quality programs from the Food Allergy Research & Resource Program. “It has to be a program you can talk and train to.”
That goes hand-in-hand with establishing the right program for your facility. That can be anything from using different colored utensils for working with different allergens to how to properly clean and do visual inspections. “It’s a multi-faceted approach,” Stout says. “The most important thing is just to have a program that is good and you can train to.”
The first opportunity a commissary has to get a jump on allergens is in the receiving area. Taking clear notes of what is coming in and, if at all possible, labelling the allergens right there can be a huge help during the ingredient’s trip through the facility.
“A lot of times in that environment, you might get 25- or 50-pound bags of ingredients, like milk powder, tree nuts, walnuts or eggs,” Stout says. “If you bring in whey, it should be labeled as dairy. If you bring in butter, it should be labeled as dairy. That helps people visually see ‘Oh that is definitely a dairy allergen.’”
After ingredients are brought into the facility and allergens are labeled, it is ideal to store them together. Those allergenic ingredients should be stored above only other like-type allergens. This takes a common understanding of allergic reactions, Stout says, further emphasizing the importance of education.
“Peanuts and tree nuts are not the same allergens, so consumers can get a different reaction from each of them,” he says. “They might be allergic to tree nuts, but not peanuts, and vice-versa. Or they could be allergic to both.”
So now the allergenic ingredients have been stored and labeled and are ready for production, where things only get more complicated. Here, Stout says, seemingly simple solutions can play a big role in keeping the final product safe.
“As you prepare any type of ingredient, a lot of commissaries and these types of kitchens will be using measure cups or pails,” he says. “It’s nice to have a specific color for a specific allergen.”
For example, any utensil or measuring device that is used for eggs can be marked yellow. Perhaps peanuts are assigned red, tree nuts are green and dairy products are white. Just the act of color-coding can minimize confusion and help eliminate avoidable mistakes when an employee is doing something as routine as measuring an ingredient. “It’s so difficult when you have all these ingredients to be able to keep them separate at all times,” Stout says. “This is a good solution.”
This becomes especially complicated when simultaneously making multiple products that contain different allergens. With many commissaries routinely preparing salads, the challenge to keep each ingredient separate from the other is very real.
“When you’re making potato salad or egg salad and maybe another salad with walnuts, and then one with bleu cheese crumbles, it gets incredibly difficult,” Stout says. “Each salad needs to be kept separate from the other, obviously, and all the utensils used for those items need to be thoroughly cleaned before they’re used in a different allergen-profile product.”
And what about preparing food items that contain multiple allergen profiles? That requires even more work and, yes, once again stresses a solid training program.
“You might have a salad with bleu cheese crumbles and walnuts. Then if it has eggs, you’ve got three allergens,” Stout says. “It’s so, so important to track all that stuff and really educate your people about the allergens and what they can do to people and then how to manage them. It all goes back to needing a program that helps them understand what to do, and that needs to be a documented course.”
Stout specializes in sanitation and it is a topic in which commissary operators are undoubtedly well-versed. It is, after all, a basic part of food safety and running a successful facility.
But Stout says sanitation can be just a little different when dealing with allergens. Workers must go the extra mile to ensure everything is thoroughly cleaned. If a piece of equipment, for example, uses sifters, screens or colanders, the real estate for hiding particulates is increased tenfold.
“For example, when you’re working with peanuts, you’re dealing with peanut hearts,” he says. “It’s just a small chip of a peanut, but if you have any kind of colander or screen or anything that can hold particulate matter, they can get stuck.”
And a tiny, hard-to-see heart of a peanut that makes its way into a supposedly allergen-free product can be enough to set off a life-or-death allergic reaction in an affected person.
“It’s really just being careful about not only the contact surfaces you can see, but the areas that you might be able to see,” Stout says. “Yes, you cleaned it, but there still might be a particulate there than can cause major problems.”
In fact, the problem stemming from that situation can lead directly to the area that Stout says is the most important thing to prevent recalls for commissaries: labeling. “The biggest reason for recalls in the industry is improper labeling,” he says. “Many of these commissaries have allergens in something that people might not expect and it should be labeled to ensure that an unknowing allergen-sensitive person doesn’t ingest something by accident.
”That includes paying attention to ingredients that are seemingly allergen-free. Making sure they truly do not contain allergens is vital.
“If you have peanuts, you usually see them. But if you use a peanut sauce or peanut flavoring, maybe it’s not so clear,” Stout says. “On the same page, sometimes people use artificial creamers and think they’re dairy-free. Well, there probably is some dairy in there. You really have to be careful and label accordingly.”
It’s all part of today’s landscape, which includes a rapidly growing number of allergen-sensitive consumers who are studying labels much more than they used to. The industry has acted accordingly, Stout says, and that goes a long way toward earning, and keeping, new business.
But there is always room for improvement. “It really is more complicated today,” Stout says. “I have two kids who are celiac patients. Every little bit helps. Even though it’s more complicated today, the industry is doing a good job of labeling and education and that’s something that has to continue.”