With Allergies Surging, Food Industry Heightens Precautions
In the summer of 1483, according to chronicler Thomas More, Lord William Hastings was beheaded after the future king Richard III ate a bowl of strawberries. Less than 90 minutes after eating the strawberries, Richard was a changed man. He was foaming at the mouth, “knawing at his lips” and his arm looked “like a blasted sapling, wither’d up”. Turned out, King Richard was allergic to strawberries. Today, he would not be alone.
An estimated 15 million people in the US have food allergies: 9 million adults (4% of the adult population) and 6 million children (8% of children). According to a study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies among children increased approximately 50% between 1997 and 2011. More than 17 million Europeans have a food allergy, and hospital admissions for severe reactions in children have risen seven-fold over the past decade, according to the European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI). While there is clearly a rise in food allergies globally, there is no clear answer as to why.
Over 160 foods have been identified as “major food allergens” by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (FALCPA). In the US, 90% of all food allergic reactions come from these 8 foods:
• Tree Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, coconuts, cashews, pistachios, pecans and Brazil nuts
• Fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, bass, flounder and cod)
• Shellfish (shrimp, crab, lobster)
There is no cure for food allergies. Eating even small amounts of these allergens can cause serious and even fatal reactions. Early recognition and strict avoidance is the only way to manage allergic reactions to food. Consequently, food allergies have become a major concern for not only the allergic individual, but all those involved in supplying and preparing food including the family and friends, schools, caterers, restaurants and the food industry.
Dining out can pose a significant risk to people affected by food allergies. Research suggests that close to half of fatal food allergy reactions are triggered by food consumed outside the home.
Heidi Strommen, President of ProHost USA, a restaurant insurance expert, says, “The best way to prevent food allergy incidents is the combination of a better educated consumer and a well-trained restaurant staff.”
In the past, restaurants viewed accommodating people with food allergies as “a pain”, says Strommen, “but today, restaurants are taking big steps in protecting customers against such life-threatening issues. Some are even catering to the allergic individual.”
The best-practices strategy according to Strommen is to conduct regular training of wait staff, kitchen personnel and managers with respect to proper food handling, preparation and storage and appropriate communication with customers who have food allergies.
Servers (front of the house) are on the front line and need to be trained to answer consumer concerns and questions about ingredients used in preparing the food. Then, the server needs to clearly report those concerns to the kitchen. The kitchen (or back house) must know what ingredients are being used in food preparation and how to avoid cross-contamination of those ingredients that are the culprits of food allergies.
Primary factor in food product recalls
In the past few months, retailers have pulled hundred of products from shelves after traces of peanut proteins appeared in cumin spice. Dr. David Acheson, Founder and CEO of The Acheson Group, a US-based food industry consultancy, noted in an article about the cumin-peanut allergen recalls that the peanut allergen-contaminated cumin had been used in more than 675 different products, with one company alone having to recall more than 500 products.
According to Stericycle Recall Index, undeclared allergens accounted for 50% of all FDA food-related recalled units in the fourth quarter of 2014. The most common foods involved in the food allergen recalls included bakery products, snack foods, candy, dairy products and dressing. The recalls were the result of simple manufacturing operational errors such as mislabeling, mis-packaging or unintentional cross-contamination.
Allergens have also become the number one source of meat recalls according to the US Department of Agriculture, which regulates meat & poultry. More than 2.1 million pounds of USDA-inspected foods were recalled in the fourth quarter of 2014 alone —more than double that of the third quarter; and the recalls impacted 31 companies.
In this era of globalization, John W. Turner, Vice President, Head of Product Recall USA & Canada, XL Catlin, says that it is not only populations that are migrating globally, but also foods. Regional differences in food allergies need to be taken into consideration by all global food manufacturers. For example:
- Peanuts and tree nuts are common in the US, Australia and Western Europe
- Sesame allergies are big in Israel and the Middle East
- Rice allergies and shell fish are common in Japan and China
- Egg allergies in Australia, New Zealand
- Cow’s milk allergy in the Middle East
- Egg and cow’s milk in the UK
- Apples and kiwis in Europe, Central and South America.
“In order to manage allergen risks in a global supply chain, manufacturers need to have a thorough knowledge of the ingredients and possible contaminants in a food product,” says Turner. “The big danger is than an allergen may contaminate an otherwise allergy-safe food if the product is made on the same processing equipment as products containing allergens, unless there is adequate cleaning between processes and pre-production swabbing to ensure the efficacy of sanization. The reality is there is no substitute to knowing and controlling your supply chain top to bottom, to understand where ingredients are being sourced from and testing such ingredients to show that they are as represented and contain no nasty surprises such as the recent cumin issue highlighted.”
Like the restaurant case, Turner says staff training and education are another important component in supply chain risks of allergen contamination. “Understanding the potential consequences to a consumer with food allergies reinforces the importance of following proper control procedures.”
Food allergies are gaining much need attention and are now recognized as an important food safety issue. Restaurants and food manufacturers alike are addressing the concerns of allergic consumers through a variety of methods that will help consumers with food allergies deal with a life-threatening health concern. Fortunately, while the number of individuals with food allergies continues to rise, a growing number of restaurants and food manufacturers are making sure that their products and services do not unknowingly expose their customers to food allergen dangers.
For more information, visit:
FARE, Food Allergy Research & Education, a nonprofit organization formed in 2012 as the result of a merger between the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network and the Food Allergy Initiative, providing information, tools and resources to help individuals with food allergies.
The Acheson Group, LLC (TAG) is a strategic consulting firm for food and beverage companies and those providing technical support to the food industry. With a focus on strategic risk management, TAG provides the latest food safety consulting insights in a global environment in providing Operational Risk management, Reputational risk management, and Regulatory Risk services. In an exclusive partnership with XL Catlin, TAG is part of Response XL, a global network of consultants that bring you best practice advice in risk prevention, recall planning and crisis response — and are available 24/7 to help food businesses manage potential product contamination and recall situations.
Maryanne Sherman is President of Sherman Think Tank, a marketing communications consulting firm specializing in writing about re/insurers.