When developing your Food Safety Management System (FSMS), a key area to focus on is allergen control and management. This is one of those hazards that has evolved over time and can now be seen in the media on almost a daily basis—mislabeled allergens are one of the most common recalls—and can have dire consequences if not properly controlled. With more than 50 million Americans having some kind of allergy, you will need to ensure that you have a compre- hensive program in place to control allergens within your facility, whether you are manufacturer, retailer or foodservice provider.
While 90 percent of all allergic reactions can be attributed to eight types of food—eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat and soy—there are other less common allergens that consumers are concerned with. Therefore, it is important to really understand your product and educate your team on allergen management.
Here are some tips on developing a robust allergen management program.
Know Your Products:
Sources: Know your suppliers—are they reputable, do they handle any allergens, what is their allergen management program?
Raw Material/Ingredients: Know what is in the ingre- dients that you are using to prepare your product. Does it contain an allergen), is it made in a facility that handles allergens, has it been exposed to cross-contact, does your packaging introduce any allergen concerns?
Having a comprehensive supplier approval and management program will assist in ensuring that all your incoming materials have the same strict control measures that you require inter- nally to reduce the risk of an adverse situation.
Train Your People:
Management: Does your management team know what allergen management means and can they commu- nicate with and instruct their teams on how to control allergens within your facility? Do they drive awareness and compliance on your allergen program?
Receivers: Does your team know how to handle any allergen related raw materials that are coming into your facility, do they know where and how to store allergen
containing items and can they communicate any issues that they find?
Operators/Cooks: Does your team know how to handle allergens during preparation, do they use separate utensils and tools and do they clean up allergen spills properly and avoid cross-contact?
Servers: Do your servers know what allergens are, what types of allergens are common in your menu and how to discuss allergen avoidance with your guests?
Having a solid employee training program will benefit you throughout your FSMS but is even more critical when it comes to allergen control and management.
Provide Allergen Information:
Documented Policies/Procedures: Developing written policies and procedures addressing allergen control and management provides standardized best practices for everyone to adhere to when dealing with allergens. It is easy to look up something if you are unsure and provides great training tools for new and existing employees.
Product/Menu Labeling: Ensuring that product is properly labeled so that all ingredients are listed out and allergens are highlighted makes it easier for the food handler or consumer to recognize where allergens might be lurking.
Personnel Knowledge: Again, we cannot emphasize enough how critical is that your team knows and under- stands allergens. They will be a source of knowledge for customers, whether through direct interaction (servers, customer service/complaint centers) or messaging/content providers (nutrition/allergen facts, menu labeling).
Ensuring correct labeling is important because many practices use human, rather than automated, processes. Where possible, build in automated processes to avoid human error.
Handle Allergens Appropriately:
Avoid cross-contact: Having the right processes in place will help you to avoid cross-contact across your facility, such as proper receiving and storage practices to segregate allergens and ensure proper spill cleanup. Process/product flow patterns will ensure appropriate allergen management through the facility, separate productions lines, color code tools and different protective clothing for allergen vs.
non-allergen areas. Finally, production scheduling enables you to use an allergen matrix to ensure proper scheduling to reduce changeovers and avoid cross-contact potential and proper allergen sanitation when moving from allergen to non-allergen.
Label correctly: Ensure that labels correctly list the necessary ingredients and highlight any allergens that are contained in the product or that the product might be exposed to in the preparation environment and ensure the use of correct labels and that correct ingredients are used during preparation so allergens are not accidentally introduced.
How you handle allergens within your facility will determine your level of risk and likelihood that an incident will occur. Based on the number of recalls out there that are caused by mislabeling of allergens, there appears to be more preventive action that the industry can do to really get control over allergen control and management.
Other Considerations to Make When Developing Your Allergen Program:
Traceability throughout your supply chain: Having a robust process for tracing all materials from source to end user will make it easier to address any adverse situations (such as a recall) that may occur—whether that is inadver- tently adding an incorrect ingredient or using the wrong label for a particular product. A fast reaction to this type of error could mean life or death to someone with severe allergies.
Risk Assessment/Management: Utilizing risk tools will assist in the proactive identification of allergen hazards and should include such tools as HACCP, supplier/material review and approval, inspection/monitoring and corrective action.
In conclusion, having a comprehensive FSMS that includes robust allergen control and management processes will ensure that you are keeping your customers safe and happy. Using technology that assists in automating and streamlining these processes will benefit you greatly. Be smart and be safe!