Handling food allergens in retail and manufacturing

J. Hignett, Nestle UK Ltd, Croydon 8.1 Introduction

Food allergies can be uncomfortable, severe or potentially fatal to those who suffer them, depending on the nature of the reaction. The most common advice to sufferers is to avoid consumption of the trigger food in the diet. On the surface this seems a relatively simple and straightforward means of avoiding reactions. However, the fact that some individuals can react to minute amounts of the trigger food combined with the fact that the most common triggers of food allergies (milk, egg, wheat and nuts) can be widespread throughout a host of different foods means that avoiding allergens can be a time-consuming process.

All food manufacturers have an overriding legal responsibility to ensure that their products are safe and fit for the purpose intended. They must also comply with the relevant labelling legislation. The first step is to identify the key allergens. These are the allergens that are the most common causes of food allergies. Following this, a comprehensive evaluation of ingredients, storage, products and processes needs to be undertaken to understand in detail those products that contain these key allergens. Peanuts and nuts are considered as a special case in manufacturing and retail as they currently seem to be the major cause of anaphylaxis in the UK, a severe and potentially fatal food allergy. Peanuts themselves appear to be the most potent allergen and are the main cause of severe reactions.1 They seem to initiate reactions in some peanut allergics at very low levels. Other nuts are also implicated in anaphylactic reactions and these include hazelnuts, almonds, brazils, cashews, pecans and walnuts. Additional controls at all levels are often introduced to ensure that the presence of even trace amounts of certain allergens in a product is communicated to sufferers.

Although both the retail and catering environments operate on a smaller scale than food manufacture, the principles involved in the handling of allergens are identical to that in large-scale food manufacture. The areas of concern when handling allergens and the actions that can be taken apply equally to large-scale manufacture as to smaller operations. However, one major difference is that food sold unpackaged, for instance in delicatessens and bakeries, is not sold with a detailed ingredients list. The handling of allergens in such cases mirrors that in the catering sector and is discussed in this chapter.

The main communication tool that the industry has is the ingredients list provided on the majority of products. It is important that ingredients lists are thorough, accurate and legible, and this is the duty of every manufacturer. However, this is not always straightforward and some of the issues surrounding this will be discussed in detail in this chapter.

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