In the US, nearly half of the food recalls in 2014 were attributed to undeclared allergens, an increase over 2013’s rate of 33%. The most common allergens cited for recalls were peanuts, milk and eggs. 12% of the recalls were attributed to cross contamination on the manufacturing line.
12%! That’s a pretty big number, and those are the recalls we are going to focus on today: supposedly allergen-free foods recalled for the undisclosed presence of soy, dairy, egg, tree nuts, peanuts, fish, crustacean, wheat, etc — due to improper environmental cleaning methods.
While industry standards for allergen control include a cleaning protocol, there is no consensus on what that protocol should be. There isn’t a consensus, either, for acceptable residual levels for most allergens (including gluten). People are used to thinking of gluten or other contaminants in PPM (parts per million), but this type of counting doesn’t work for measuring the amount of allergen on a given surface. Instead, surface allergens are usually measured in ng/cm2 (nanograms per square centimeter).
Given that there are no agreed-upon rules for a) how to clean surfaces of allergens or b) how to know if your surfaces are clean enough, it can be difficult for a manufacturer or co-packer to know whether or not they can safely and cost-effectively produce soy-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, etc-free food.
Building a food safety plan, then training and re-training staff to follow it is key in preventing these kinds of costly errors. Several cleaning methods are considered standard practice in manufacturing settings, and your facility should choose the methods that make the most sense for your environment.
Key points to remember when developing your sanitation plan:
- Ensure that cleaning equipment itself is dedicated (if possible) and cleaned after use to minimize the risk that it may carry and transfer allergen traces.
- Keep detailed records for cleaning, validation and verification.
- Evaluate the allergen cleaning program periodically for effectiveness and compliance.
- Monitor and verify the Allergen Control Plan frequently with internal and/or external audits.
Wet cleaning systems can be very effective and are often the best cleaning option, where practicable and usable without introducing microbial risk. Wet cleaning can also encompass standard hand equipment, such as sponges and mops. However, flushing the production line with an inert agent can also aid in eradicating allergens from hard to reach areas. Dry Cleaning can consist of brushes, dustpans, etc., but filtered vacuum systems are much more efficient and offer a greater degree of safety. Consider using a combination of cleaning methods, it may be a better approach for controlling allergen surface contamination then using any one method.
When it is time to verify the methods and prove the surfaces are indeed clean, LFD’s (Lateral Flow Devices) are an easy and portable way to test your cleaning assumptions in a manufacturing setting. Swab tests can be used on the surface, including hard-to-reach parts of the machinery. Emport’s test kits are well suited for this purpose, with the added benefit of being able to directly test surfaces along with foods. If, after you have conducted testing, you find some presence of allergens, then your cleaning protocol may need revisions.
GlutenTox and AlerTox Sticks kits are specially designed to help manufacturers keep their items and environment free from the antigens that cause allergic reaction. Kits are user-friendly: no lab equipment or scientific knowledge required. They’re a must-have for any manufacturer or commercial kitchen that wants to ensure food safety. GlutenTox can detect gluten content as low as 5ppm. AlerTox Sticks quantifies main food allergens including Almond, Casein, Crustacean, Egg, Fish, Hazelnut, Peanut and Soy.