An estimated six to seven million Americans suffer from food allergies, with peanuts being the most responsible for severe or fatal reactions.

Donna Berry
An estimated six to seven million Americans suffer from food allergies, with peanuts being the most responsible for severe or fatal reactions. Other common food allergens include eggs, fish, milk, soybeans and wheat. Food product developers need not avoid formulating with allergenic ingredients, provided they take the necessary steps to inform consumers about the allergen's inclusion in a food. They must also prevent contamination at the manufacturing level to avoid the possible inclusion of an unlabelled allergen in a food.

In the dairy industry, ice cream manufacturers traditionally have faced the most challenges when it comes to handling allergens, as many inclusions contain peanuts or peanut butter.

Right before Christmas, Safeway Inc., Pleasanton, Calif., recalled a specific code date of half-gallons of Lucerne Chocolate Almond Ice Cream. The recall was initiated after it was discovered that product containing peanuts was distributed in packaging that did not reveal the presence of peanuts. There had been one reported mild reaction at the time of the recall. Earlier in the year, PET/Land-O-Sun Dairy, a Dean Foods Co., Dallas, recalled half-gallon cartons of PET brand Butter Pecan Ice Cream. Cartons labeled as Butter Pecan Ice Cream actually contained Nutty Buddy Chocolate Nut Sundae Cone Ice Cream with peanuts and wheat flour as ingredients.

These companies did the right thing by recalling product.

In general, to prevent allergen contamination, ice cream manufacturers follow good manufacturing procedures and incorporate HACCP into their daily operations. They also typically run products containing known allergenic ingredients such as peanuts and peanut butter at the end of the day to prevent cross contamination. In addition to ice cream manufacturers, dairy ingredient processors are challenged to keep dairy products separated from non-dairy products. This is also becoming true for fluid milk operations, as many of these companies are expanding into juice and soy processing.

Because the presence of allergens is much more prominent in today's dairy processing environment, dairy manufacturers are looking for new ways to strengthen allergen avoidance programs. In keeping with HACCP principles, allergen test kits have been developed that anticipate and help eliminate potential hazards at real time or near real time, thus saving the expense and embarrassment of a recall. These test kits can be used on finished product, product contact surfaces or recycled Clean-in-Place (CIP) rinse waters. The tests can determine whether food processing plant cleanup operations are sufficient to avoid cross-contamination and whether the finished product is free of specific allergens.

In October 2003, FDA announced that several test kit methods for the detection of peanut proteins in breakfast cereal, cookies, ice cream and milk chocolate had been approved as Performance Tested Methods by the Association of Official Analytical Chemists (AOAC). These test kits provide a quick and reliable method for the food industry to detect more readily the presence of peanuts in food that is not labeled as containing peanuts, and can more effectively prevent these products from reaching consumers.

Three kits have been approved by AOAC, and more are in the process. While there are some minor differences in the performance and design of the methods, all three test kit methods have been approved by AOAC and have been proven to be reliable, i.e., 80% level of confidence, for the detection of peanut protein. Approximately 40 analyses can be performed with each kit, and the cost per kit ranges from $450 to $650. This is a small cost to pay to prevent a recall, or even worse, a death.

The benefits of including an allergen testing program in your operations is that the program effectively yields returns by way of a safer product, improved product quality, improved productivity and increased consumer acceptance.