Allergens are serious business, in everyday consumer life and in the life of a food production facility. Central kitchens and intermediate bakeries are among the businesses with the greatest need to have allergens under control.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, there were 437 food product recalls in 2015, with 39 attributed to bakery products. Thirty-two of those were blamed on allergens, ranging from milk, undeclared peanuts, tree nuts, egg, soy and wheat. The next year, out of 96 bakery recalls, 56 were due to allergens. Peanuts were involved in 22 of those recalls.
Recalls for allergens have been a persistent problem for a number of years no, with little to no sign of decline. And while there are many possible steps in a sanitation strategy that can help curb problems, one of the very first steps can be among the most important.
Testing for allergens before running a product through a line can help drastically reduce problems, according to Fernado Mora, western regional sales manager for Hygiena, foodservice solutions company headquartered in the U.S. in Camarillo, California.
The company offers a pair of tests — AllerSnap and AllerFlow — that serve as quick indicators for allergenic proteins.
“The way my customers use it, the intent is that it’s a quick changeover,” Mora says. “Typically, they’re running an allergen through a line and then they’re cleaning it, testing it and making sure that the line is totally clean before they process a non-allergen.”
Both tests feature a color metric swab, meant to allow the end user a quick reaction in a timely manner to understand if they’ve adequately cleaned food production contact surfaces.
“Basically, you’re trying to control the amount of potential allergenic residue that’s leftover that could result in cross-contamination,” Mora says.
AllerSnap is a broad range allergen surface test that verifies proteins have been removed from surfaces. The self-contained test detects a wide range of allergens, including shrimp, wheat, peanut, egg, milk, soy, almonds and sesame. The company says this feature helps eliminate additional costs associated with running specific allergen tests.
“The process we have is most easily interpreted is by the color metric,” Mora says. “Basically, we put a color table on the swab itself and then the medium inside the swab turns a color and then you just match it. It tells you if it’s a pass, once it gets to a certain color it’s a caution and once it gets to a certain color it’s a fail.”
Green means clean and purple means re-clean, according to the company. The more protein in the sample, the deeper and dark the purple becomes.
AllerFlow is a gluten-specific test for surfaces. It combines the sample collection swab design and classic lateral flow technology. The sample swab holds pre-measured, ready-to-use buffer. Once an area is swabbed, the device is activated with a snap and squeeze action and the sample is then poured onto the lateral flow cassette.
If a sample contains five parts per million of more of gluten, a red line appears on the cassette.
“That’s the easiest way to do something like that and we can do it because these are residue tests and not product tests,” Mora says. “If it’s a product test, it’s more of a per-volume test, which gets a lot more difficult to interpret. And this helps in covering all potential areas where there could be risk.
“This really is a pretty simple, first-level kind of step. It’s not a product test or a really in-depth test. Our products are meant to be used at the sanitation level to ensure that you’re starting with, literally, a clean slate before a product contacts a surface.”
Tests like this become even more important in today’s climate, Mora says, where allergens are on the minds of many consumers. Commissaries and bakeries are spending much more time and money ensuring the food they bill as allergen-free really is.
“The sanitation processes that companies have in place these days are a lot more extreme than they were before. Not only are they testing the product themselves, but surfaces,” he says. “In the past, if they were looking for something specific, they tested the product and that’s how they would measure it. Now they’re testing the product itself as well as the contact surfaces. They’re trying to minimize their risk. They’re thinking ‘Well, maybe we did good with the product, but if there’s still something on the surface, it could eventually show up in the product at the end of the day anyway.’”
That might be double important when it comes to gluten, which continues to be a hot-button topic among consumers, retailers and producers.
“If you have a product and you’re going to claim it was made in a gluten-free facility, or something like that, you have to live by that seal that’s on the box of your product,” Mora says. “Our customers have definitely increased the amount of testing they’re doing because of the awareness. I would say in the last couple of years it’s changed drastically. It’s been brought to the forefront a lot more because so many people nowadays are claiming to have gluten-free diets. It’s changed a lot in the sense that it’s more of a common test for a lot of different customers. The marketing of the products themselves has a lot to do with it.”
Not to mention, allergen detection is now a common topic of discussion when it comes to audits.
“We always get the phone call from the customer that says they need to verify my sanitation procedures and almost always in that same conversation, allergens and allergen checks are brought up,” Mora says. “The auditors out there are also looking for it. Now they’re asking, ‘Do you clean and what are you doing about checking for allergens?’ It used to be more like ‘you probably should.’ Now it’s more like ‘Tell me what you used today.’”
“The sanitation processes that companies have in place these days are a lot more extreme than they were before.”
Fernando Mora, Hygiena