Food Allergens Symposium: How food manufacturers are looking ahead

Food allergies are on the rise. According to National Institutes of Health, as many as 10 percent of people in developed countries report food allergies. The reason why food allergy rates are increasing is still not clear, but researchers have some theories.  Many believe it is linked to increased hygiene in households, which weakens children’s immune responses. Meanwhile, many food manufacturers are adopting strategies to help keep consumers with allergies safe.

3M Food Safety recently held a Symposium to discuss emerging and important topics within Allergen Testing. Food Safety and production professionals from around the world gathered to listen and learn from some of the industries key leaders in this important field.

Food allergies and food allergen regulations; Melanie Downs

It is not always easy to understand the difference between food allergies and sensitivities. Melanie Downs, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She presented on food allergy mechanisms and food allergen regulations.

Dr. Downs says “undeclared allergens remain a leading cause of reportable food registering filing,” adding that “labeling and labeling control account for a surprising number of food allergen recalls.”

Key points from her talk included:
  • Causative agents for food allergy reactions are naturally-occurring proteins, which are often resistant to heat, acids and digestive enzymes. The only treatment is an avoidance diet, which means reading food labels – and those can be hard to interpret at times.
  • The “Big 8,” or top allergenic foods were established in the US in 2004. Globally, other countries require labeling for additional food allergens.
  • Food recalls due to allergens have come because of packaging and labeling errors, inadequate cleaning of shared equipment, line crossovers, cross-contact in transportation. Food manufacturers must also be aware of these issues from ingredient suppliers.

Validation and verification of food allergen control approaches and programs; Dr. Steve Taylor

Steve Taylor, Ph.D., is co-founder and co-director of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP). He spoke about the importance of regulation in the food industry and how food manufacturers can make food safer for allergic customers.

“It’s everybody’s job,” he says. “Everyone in facility should be involved in an allergen control plan.”
Additional highlights from his presentation:

  • Develop an allergen process map. Risks most commonly occur in system design, with raw materials or supplier materials and with packaging and labeling
  • What to test? Equipment surfaces, rinse water from clean-in-place (CIP) processes and finished products, but ensure that the method used for testing is fit for purpose.
  • Most food processing and manufacturing companies process some common allergens in their facility, so reaching a level of zero particles in their process is probably not achievable. He says there is always a lower limit to what can be detected.

Additional information can be found at or by contacting FARRP faculty at

Allergen controls: Developing, validating and verifying your allergen control program – an industry perspective; Dr. Robson Ehioba

Robson Ehioba, Ph.D., is the director and food safety lead of Global Beverages at PepsiCo and has nearly 30 years of food safety experience in well-known brands.

A summary of his presentation:

  • Allergen management has many issues and challenges for food companies.
  • It’s critical to make your products safe, legal, and fit for purpose, and this is a huge undertaking. Challenges and focuses need to be centered around: preproduction issues, supplier control programs, ingredients, prevention of cross-contact during processing, employee awareness, raw material supply, and methods of validation.
  • The biggest risks concerning allergens in food processing are ingredient labeling, cross-contact, employee awareness and raw material supply.
When developing an Allergen Control Plan, two main objectives exist:
  1. Correctly communicate the allergen content of the product to the consumer (labeling)
  2. Keep allergens that are not on the label out of the product

“You have to understand what your supplier is doing at the ingredient level. If I am buying sugar from a supplier, and that sugar is going to be formulated into my finished beverage, I don’t expect sugar to contain milk protein. However, if that supplier is using that same [production line or equipment] to make whey protein, or any derivative of milk, and they may not be cleaning or have effective sanitation program, that could lead to possible allergen cross contact. As a result, they may have cross-contact with that sugar that then goes into this product, then, guess what? Somebody’s going to get sick from it, if they have sensitivity to milk proteins. It is important to understand what your supplier is doing with your ingredient before it gets to you.”

An integrated approach to environmental monitoring; Dr. Gabriela Lopez Velasco

Having safe food starts with having a preventative approach, says Gabriela Lopez Velasco, Ph.D, and senior food microbiologist in 3M’s Food Safety Department.

“A food safety plan should involve a thorough risk analysis in order to implement effective risk management procedures and should consider risk communication for everyone to understand the risk” she says.

Key points shared:

  • She recommends environmental monitoring to monitor for both allergens and pathogens. “There is not just one risk. Having a good environmental monitoring program requires an integrated approach.”
  • There are many methods available, including non-specific protein tests which can indicate if allergens were effectively removed during cleaning. She recommends evaluating allergen testing methods before use to ensure the method will be fit for purpose at your facility.

While there is some debate on what level of allergens are safe and whether zero parts per million of any given ingredient will ever be achievable, there is something that all sides can agree on: Cooperation, education, and shared learnings are part of the solution.

Sasha Zoric, director of food safety and quality assurance at Maple Leaf Foods, sums up that position.

“Food safety is not a competitive advantage,” he says. “When one of us has an issue, it hurts us all.”

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