How to perfect your food allergen management systems
02 December 2020
Keeping people safe from allergens is mandatory for food processing establishments. But the rules on allergen management are evolving, and your processes will need to keep up. Traceability and accountability should be at the heart of any system you choose to manage the risk of food allergens. It’ll give you the foresight to avoid risk and the evidence to fix problems fast if incidents do happen.
Here, we look at how technology can give you tighter control over allergen management in the food industry, plus simpler ways to manage your HACCP processes.
Why is now a good time to reassess allergen management in the food industry?
The rate of allergic reactions has increased sharply in the last 30 years, as has the range of foods that cause these reactions. The reasons for this are unclear, and children are particularly vulnerable: cases of children hospitalised with severe allergic reactions in England has grown by 72% over the last six years.
This rise in allergies and intolerances has created a bigger market for ‘free from’ products and has also driven the need for better labelling to enable safer, more informed choices.
The cost of getting food allergen control wrong can be huge. There is a very real risk to people's lives if products are labelled incorrectly or if an allergen in the product has not even been detected. When that product is already in circulation there's an opportunity to withdraw it from sale, but recalling food after it's been sold is much harder - and too late to guarantee customer safety.
As well as the human cost of allergen risk, your business could face financial losses. Legal fines, wasted stock and the cost of fixing the problem all add up. The damage to your brand's reputation can also affect sales and the confidence of investors.
With all of this in mind, it’s best to think of your allergen management system as more than just a safety checklist – it can make your food manufacturing processes more efficient and more agile at adapting to change.
The food allergens your business must control
There are 14 allergens listed in the law that consumers must be made aware of:
- cereals containing gluten, including wheat, rye, barley and oats
- crustaceans, such as prawns, crabs and lobsters
- molluscs, such as mussels and oysters
- tree nuts
- sesame seeds
- sulphur dioxide and sulphites, if they are at a concentration of more than 10 parts per million
Even if these allergens aren’t used in the ingredients, they still might show up in the final product if they were used in its production. Traces of allergens from other sources like cleaning products are also something to be aware of.
How does your HACCP system help to control food allergens?
Every food business needs to have a Hazard Analysis and Critical Point (HACCP) checklist as part of its food safety management system. Part of this requires the identification of allergen hazards, along with physical, chemical and biological hazards.
Your HACCP plan must be able to identify, record and control the risk of allergens at every stage of the food handling process. It should give you the tools to:
- identify and track ingredients
- separate foods that are identified as allergens
- provide information about allergens that may be present in the final product
We’ll break these down to see how they can be achieved at each stage of the food manufacturing process:
1. Product development
The first step in developing a food product should be establishing safety processes. These should include ways to identify, analyse and control allergen risks on an ongoing basis.
Water-tight document control gives you a solid starting point for traceability and accountability. This should cover how people contribute to documents as well as how those items are updated, stored and accessed.
If your product is being distributed in multiple territories, you might also need to check up on the allergen rules in those markets. This could affect how your product is packaged and labelled.
2. Do you know what's in your supply chain?
Every one of your raw ingredient and packaging suppliers should be checked for compliance. This should happen on a regular basis through audits, inspection, documentation and communication. Ideally, your Quality Management System (QMS) should be extended to include suppliers, so that all your compliance data is kept in one place.
3. Identifying allergens in every food process
Testing for allergens can find and identify substances that are either unexpected or undeclared. This could be a non-food item, like traces of pesticides or cleaning products. The means for handling this should be built into your risk-management system, but that can only happen if allergen data is logged properly in the first place. Again, a robust document trail will help you trace back to where the allergen first entered the manufacturing process.
4. Avoiding cross-contamination
Food allergens can sneak into your product through many means: people, machinery, storage units and packaging can all act as vehicles. Your HACCP should include strict procedures for separating foods that are identified as allergens, both in storage and during the manufacturing process.
Where you use the same equipment to produce a range of items, it might be impossible to avoid traces of certain allergens that are in some but not others (like nuts). This should be declared on the label of any finished product that’s shared part of the manufacturing process. It’s only possible to do this if your QMS links all the ingredient and allergen information to your equipment.
5. Packaging and labelling
Allergy-related product withdrawals and recalls are often caused by incorrect packaging or labelling. This is an expensive mistake and could point to serious gaps in your allergen management systems.
Clear and concise information on food allergens must be available to consumers. It must be provided on the packaging and through any channel the food is sold. Correct labelling again comes down to the accuracy of your documentation and how easy it is to access that information.
6. Staff awareness and training
Allergen training should be part of your HACCP, and it’s important to make sure everyone stays qualified. The content of the training should be checked regularly to ensure it stays up to date with the latest guidance on allergen management in the food industry. This shows you have proper accountability measures in place and you may need to prove your training is good enough during an audit.
Online learning systems make it much easier to deliver consistent training standards across a whole organisation, and many platforms give you the option to customise the content to your business need. It cuts out the need to organise multiple events and you don’t have to worry about people falling behind - the software will automatically track who’s done what and will raise alerts when certifications time out.
How software improves traceability and accountability in food allergen management
Safer products and correct labelling should come as a natural result of your food allergen management processes. But you should also have the power to track and trace incidents at speed when the unexpected does happen. This is the biggest weakness of paper and Excel-based systems – it's difficult to trust the accuracy, consistency or even the existence of the data you need.
At Ideagen we work with food processing establishments to align their manufacturing process to safer food allergen controls. Our software gives them a more reliable way to manage food allergens from supplier to distribution:
- Incident management
- Risk assessment
- Supplier quality control
- Document co-authoring and review
- Legal resources