As food allergies have become more prevalent, regulators have increased mandates on manufacturers. Amy Chua from Romer Labs looks at how to manage the changing industry requirements. This article was first published in Food & Drink Business May 2021.
Food allergies have become a topic of major consumer concern over the last few years. As diagnosed cases of food allergy rise, both awareness of the problem and the need to better inform allergic consumers on restricted diets have increased.
In addition, with increasing food export from Asia-Pacific, manufacturers are subjected to the importing countries’ regulations on food allergens, hence the growing importance of knowledge in food allergies.
Regulators in the Asia-Pacific region have also increasingly mandated that food manufacturers and importers label for mandatory allergens in their markets. As a result, different approaches to precautionary allergen labelling (PAL) have emerged. However, PAL can severely and unnecessarily limit the choices of food that are safe for consumption by an allergic consumer.
Rather than benefitting the manufacturers and retailers, PAL should become a trusted method that empowers allergic consumers to make safer food choices. Jasmine Lacis-Lee from the Allergen Bureau summarises this dynamic, noting that “many organisations still struggle with how to approach the implementation of allergen management while obtaining the business commitment required in their facilities”.
Developed and managed by the Allergen Bureau, the Voluntary Incidental Trace Allergen Labelling (VITAL) program is designed to address allergen management based on a scientific-risk assessment process, and complement existing food safety systems like HACCP.
A stated goal of VITAL is to avoid the indiscriminate use of PAL and thereby preserve its value as a risk management tool. The program is also continuously revising and updating recommended reference doses to identified matrices to ensure that these aspects resonate with the current consumers.
Allergen analysis plays a significant role in the application of VITAL in the overall process of risk assessment. It can assist in several crucial areas: verifying ingredient allergen statements; verifying the allergen profile of raw materials and potential raw material cross-contact; targeting the analysis to assess cleaning efficacy and cleaning validations; confirming assumptions made during the risk assessment process; monitoring the effect of critical changes; and validating the VITAL risk assessment.
Besides training personnel and putting policies and measures in place, the process of validation and testing is also essential in ensuring the allergen management system is effective. Equipment and production lines should be tested regularly for food allergens to ensure that cleaning has been thoroughly carried out and cross-contamination risks are eliminated.
It is also of utmost importance to verify the effectiveness of the management plan regularly by checking final products for the presence of allergens.
Developments in regulations
Recently, the declaration of individual tree nuts became mandatory in Australia. This benefits the allergic population in that the allergen identification is now specific. The feedback to this new regulation has been positive as it provides an improvement to the quality of life of allergic consumers, allowing them to enjoy wider food options.
Romer Labs Asia-Pacific managing director Yong Wee Liau says it is a “great step forward” in terms of food safety regulations.
“It also pushes food manufacturers to implement measures in their allergen risk management programmes to eliminate cross-contaminations of allergens as a blanket declaration is now insufficient.
“Food allergies can be fatal and we should all take allergen management seriously to ensure that food is safe to enjoy for different groups of people. Food safety is of utmost importance in all aspects of life.”
Accredited food allergen test kits from Romer Labs offer validated solutions for testing individual tree nuts and other food allergens, helping food manufacturers to comply with this new rule in allergen declaration in Australia.
Romer Labs’ rapid tests are suited for on-site qualitative testing, while ELISA test kits provide quantitative results for the detection of food allergens.
Food manufacturers who integrate these tests into their allergen management systems and use them regularly can effectively ensure that food products, equipment and production lines are allergen-free.