It is too easy to dismiss today’s heightened awareness of food allergies and intolerances as being driven more by fashion than fact.
This is especially true given the trend in recent years for celebrities and their fans to opt for a gluten-free diet, for example, or avoid lactose as a lifestyle and ‘healthy eating’ choice rather than because of any evidence of intolerance or allergy.
Fashion has played a more substantial role, however, when it comes to our more exotic eating habits in recent years, especially among the middle classes.
Figures suggest that more consumers are now exposing themselves to risk from a greater number of allergens in foreign foods which, only a few years ago, might never have made it on to their plate.
Data confirms that the challenges around allergy in the UK are real and on the rise. The most recent estimate from Allergy UK puts the proportion of the UK adult population suffering from at least one allergic disorder at 44%. That this is a growing problem is borne out by the equivalent estimate for the child population, which stands at 50%.
Compared with these figures, the 1-2% of adults and 5-8% of children believed by the organisation to have a food allergy might sound relatively low. Yet these conditions can be among the most serious.
The latest statistics from the Anaphylaxis Campaign, for people at risk of severe allergies, show that between 2011 and 2016, the number of UK hospital admissions with anaphylactic shock as the primary diagnosis rose by just under 20%. Over the same period, the number of admissions triggered by allergies of all kinds increased by 36%.
Is your system sanitary?
For the food and drink supply chain, reducing the risk of consumer exposure to allergens starts with the greatest care being taken in the sourcing all ingredients, auditing suppliers, and so on.
But the benefits of carefully managing allergen content can be nullified at the factory stage by cross-contamination. The risks here are especially acute given that only tiny amounts of an allergen can trigger a serious reaction in a sufferer. For this reason, larger manufacturers will, where possible, segregate production areas handling known allergens, such as nuts and seafood.
For smaller manufacturers, this option may not be available. In this case, the emphasis must fall on hygiene and good process practices. In fact, where potential allergens are present, or could be present, in some sets of ingredients but not in others, cleaning must go well beyond normal hygienic requirements. Even where heat processing is involved, allergens can still survive high temperatures.
Equipment cleaning protocols should be formalised and included in staff training. Every cleaning process needs to be verified and documented. As part of a validation process, regular tests, including swabs of Critical Control Points, should be scheduled to ensure these areas are allergen-free.
Product residues, potentially including allergens, can be especially troublesome in gravity metal detection systems for powders and particulates. This might be the case, for example, in a factory packing or processing different cereals, flours and baking mixes, where avoiding gluten content in certain products may be extremely important.
But liquids, semi-liquids and slurries in pipeline systems can pose problems of their own. Take, for example, the trend for including added dairy or soy protein, or milk content, in beverages. Dairy proteins may not be a problem where drinks are themselves milk-based, but the same filling line which handles waters and other soft drinks fortified with protein sources such as whey may also run dairy-free products.
The same issue might be true of a line filling fresh soups into pots or cartons, where recipes, including fish and seafood, alternate with others that avoid these ingredients.
Identifying weaker hygiene links
Efficient product changeovers are critical to productivity. For factory managers facing regular changeovers of this sort, it is essential for processing, filling and packing lines to be designed to facilitate both quick and deep cleaning.
When it comes to specifying in-process metal detection, this means that contact surfaces on conveyor, pipeline and gravity systems should be as smooth and crevice-free as possible. This is partly to ensure that no traces of product, allergens or bacteria are left, but also to reduce the risk of cleaning agents not being fully rinsed away.
High-pressure cleaning may well be deployed for fast, effective washdown, and the casing of the metal detector should be sufficiently robust to withstand this. When selecting a system, care should be taken to identify equipment with an ingress protection (IP) rating appropriate to the washdown regime being applied.
In addition to these general criteria for the whole system, special attention should be paid to the reject unit. Ideally, this will be detachable (easily detached, but quickly and securely reattached, too) to allow thorough cleaning.
Of course, there are many other potential sources of cross-contamination in a food and drink factory. Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) provides plenty of guidance on the hygiene and behaviour of personnel.
But the potential role of operators in spreading allergens by moving ingredients around the floor in unsealed containers, running allergenic products at the start of the shift rather than the end, not changing or cleaning protective equipment, for example, needs to be driven home where the risks are especially high.
Unlike labelling anomalies, which will probably show up as soon as product reaches the retailer, unnotified allergen content or harmful pathogens (just like undetected metal contamination) will usually only surface once items are on-shelf and in the hands of the consumer.
At that point, product recall costs are much higher but can, in any case, be dwarfed by the massive but less immediately tangible costs of damage to the manufacturer’s brand reputation.
Purchasing the best metal detection equipment for the job may constitute only one portion of a much bigger picture. Yet, it provides evidence that your company is taking the threat contamination from allergens and pathogens seriously, and will make a real and valuable contribution to reducing those risks.