Allergens have been a growing concern for years in the food industry. As the number of allergens — and people affected by them — grows, so does concern about how food is protected as it’s being made.

“Today’s consumers have a heightened sensitivity to allergens, and we have a strong commitment to protect them,” says Bart Child, senior vice president of commercial development of Nellson, Anaheim, California.

This heightened intolerance has revolutionized the food manufacturing industry to not only prioritize sanitation but also look at other ways to prevent cross-contamination. Companies that deal with many different allergens need stringent sanitation plans, strategic production schedules and, in some cases, isolated production lines.

“The benefits of line segregation allow us to produce products with multiple allergens on different lines at the same time,” Child says.

Line isolation can take on several forms, and it’s important for a bakery to find the system that works best for its customers, allergen matrix and production needs.

Levels of isolation

There are several types of line isolation to accommodate different plants’ needs, be they floorspace, allergen matrix, customer requirements or all three. A company can have dedicated bakeries free from a specific allergen. They can also have lines physically separated in the same building. Lines can exist in the same facility with minimal physical separation. In these cases, strict sanitation is a must.

“Ultimate isolation is achieved with totally separated facilities,” says Greg Carr, senior director of project planning, The Austin Co., based in Cleveland “A plan to meet ultimate regulatory requirements could include selecting a big enough site to accommodate a separate plant in the future.”

When creating or expanding dedicated facilities, it isn’t just about shopping for a site with enough space, but it’s also about the neighborhood.

“Austin’s site location consultants will identify any nearby facilities that may use allergens that could conceivably contaminate new plant fresh air intakes,” Carr says. “Where possible, Austin will request covenants that prevent future allergenic operations locating nearby.”

Preventing cross-contamination within the same facility by separating lines requires more operational strategies as well as physical barriers to protect allergen-free production. While dedicated plants may be closest to a sure-thing in preventing cross-contamination, it’s not always feasible for every company.

“As a co-manufacturer that manages all types of allergens, building dedicated plants is not practical,” Child says.

Choose a level

Determining which level of isolation will work best for a bakery requires a consideration of several variables including the facility’s limitations, customer requirements, current allergen matrix and future production needs.

To choose the appropriate level of isolation, bakers must first identify what the risks for cross-contamination are and where opportunities for contamination exist in the process.

“We begin with a review of products and any allergens that are part of the recipes,” Carr says. “Next is predicting future products and allergens that may be used. With this information, Austin incorporates into the design what isolation is required and how it is to be achieved.”

Considering what allergens and level of business a bakery might want to attract in the future can guide bakers to what level of segregation they’d like to make room for in the event of future expansions.

If a company isn’t building a new facility, it’s important to evaluate the existing facility for changes to prevent any cross-contamination opportunities. For example, air locks are necessary to keep allergens from traveling across segregated production lines within a plant. However, existing mechanical systems must provide extra air to pressurize these locks. Bakers should also consider their budget and how much they are willing to spend.

“The most effective form of isolation is to create physical separation by assigning rooms to different allergens,” says Pablo Coronel, director of food processing and food safety at CRB, an engineering firm based in Kansas City, Missouri. “However, this may be costly and requires planning long in advance.”

When working with an existing facility, the building itself may have limitations, specifically on space, that dictate how much isolation a bakery can achieve. Segregated warehouses, air locks, dedicated productions lines and their support systems all need space that some bakers just might not have without building a new facility.

Changeovers can signal to a baker when it’s time to make the leap from segregated lines to a dedicated allergen-free facility. When changeovers become cost-prohibitive, it’s time to make the change.

“Of course, that tipping point looks different for every company depending on its particular process and demands,” says Kevin Wilson, senior process engineer for Stellar, Jacksonville, Florida. “If you’re experiencing a greater demand for your allergen-free products, it may be worth shifting those SKUs to a dedicated plant to increase throughput and minimize downtime.”

Customers, whether they are end consumers or a brand, also have a big say in whether a bakery decides to use a dedicated facility or simply segregate the lines.

“A dedicated facility becomes necessary when products containing allergens are made at the same time as products that do not contain allergens, and the client wishes to avoid label disclosures such as ‘made in a facility which also processes tree nuts’ or when production is aimed at an allergy-sensitive population,” Coronel says.

Isolated organization

In a facility dedicated to being peanut-free, gluten-free, tree-nut free or dairy-free, preventing cross-contamination is pretty straightforward. Nothing containing the offending allergen is allowed inside the facility, whether that’s ingredient deliveries, employee lunches or vending machine contents. This high level of security combined with stringent sanitation programs minimizes the risk of an allergen sneaking onto the production floor.

A bakery with shared production lines, no matter how segregated, requires specific design strategies and operational practices to ensure no cross-contamination occurs.

“If isolation is to be achieved in a single building, several issues need to be addressed, including cross-contamination at the receiving docks or silos, separate and isolated storage areas, misuse of tools and equipment, air movement and employee movement,” Carr says. “It’s always easier and less costly to include isolation systems when the plant is first constructed. The cost and disruption to make modifications later can be mitigated if those future changes are planned in the initial design.”

Ingredient segregation is a critical first step in keeping allergens away from other production areas. Ingredient receiving is a soft spot where allergens can come into contact with ingredients for non-allergen product. It’s important that these are received on separate docks and then stored away from the others. Warehouses can be segregated by racks. Dr. Coronel suggested that half-used containers be secured with double closures to prevent powders and particulates from accidentally mixing with other products.

“Shipping and receiving should be aware of allergens, and extra care must be taken to prevent damage to allergen bags and cross-contamination,” he says.