Control of allergens throughout the supply chain 841 Crosscontamination

Cross-contamination is the risk of small particles of one ingredient being transferred from a product where they are added to another product where that ingredient is not present. Although it is a term that sounds negative, from a food industry point of view it simply represents the risk of small amounts of certain ingredients being present in a product to which they were not initially added. This can occur when two or more slightly different products are manufactured or packed on the same line and have different ingredients, such as cereal products with different additions or different flavours of chocolate bars. Cross-contamination of ingredients or products can occur at the level of the raw material supplier (who may process many raw materials), during transport or storage of raw materials or, indeed, during manufacture or packing of the finished product.

In relation to allergens, cross-contamination is a real risk that must be controlled or acknowledged on the label. In most cases it is only minute amounts of an allergen that are transferred from one product to another. However, it is clear that very sensitive individuals can react to extremely small quantities of allergens, so cross-contamination of any nature must be handled properly.

HACCP studies, as detailed earlier, are used to identify any risks of cross-contamination, which can occur at any point within the supply chain. Where a risk exists there are two options, namely control of the risk or use of the appropriate labelling on the product. Peanuts and nuts are particularly common agents involved in cross-contamination and the statement 'May contain nut traces' can be seen on a number of products. The use of the 'may contain ...' statement is not a substitute for Good Manufacturing Practice and appropriate controls, and it should only be used where a real risk of cross-contamination exists. The most common product lines to carry 'may contain' statements are chocolate products, as chocolate is usually produced on a continuous process, and although cleaning of lines is undertaken between products a full cleansing is usually performed less frequently, as water and chocolate do not mix. Other areas that pose risks are those where dry ingredients are used and dust may be present in the atmosphere, as in breakfast cereal production.

Cross-contamination is not restricted to large-scale food manufacturing environments. The risk is equally problematic in bakery shops, small confectioners and out-of-home eating establishments. The use of tongs, scoops, dishes and trays is often common to a number of products in these areas. Think of purchasing a doughnut from a small bakery where the doughnut will be placed into a bag to take away using tongs. There is a risk that those tongs were last used to handle a Danish pastry that may have had nuts liberally sprinkled over the top or a cake with an egg-based icing. Even these minute quantities of allergens can pose a risk for very sensitive individuals. The control of allergens in these circumstances and the communication to the ultimate consumer is much more difficult.

All aspects of the supply chain must be evaluated for presence or risk of contamination with key allergens. This includes purchasing of raw or semifinished materials, transport of these materials, storage within the production unit, production, packing and distribution. At each stage full HACCP evaluations of all equipment used, processes and risks need to be undertaken and documented to provide information on the suitability of the product for sufferers of different allergies. A full evaluation of a production line may involve many HACCP studies.

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