Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Cross-Contamination Concerns

The last couple of weeks, the peanut allergy message boards have been full of posts discussing companies' labeling policies.  One post that was concerning involved a teenager that had an anaphylactic reaction to Hershey's Rolo Caramels.  Someone responded to that post stating that she had spoken at length with a supervisor at Hershey's.  He told her that the majority of their products were manufactured on shared equipment with peanuts/nuts, and that the 1.5 oz Hershey bar was the only one made on a dedicated line.

The Hershey's allergen statement on their website reads as follows: "We take food allergies very seriously at Hershey and have strict procedures in place to prevent crossover of allergens into other products that do not contain the allergen. In instances where we have a concern about possible crossover by an allergen we take the added precaution of including an allergy information statement on the label."

Now my question is how many companies use shared manufacturing equipment, clean it and consider that they've removed all possibility of allergen cross-contamination??  It you believe Kashi's website information, it's impossible to remove all traces of peanut/tree nut..."Scientific evidence has shown that consumers with peanut and tree nut allergies can have a severe reaction to amounts that are below the current detectable limits based on existing technology."

I spent over 2 hours the other night searching the internet for some study or article that would validate either position, and didn't come up with much.  I did find the issue well stated in a 2008 study introduction published in the Journal of Food Protection, "Although allergen removal through cleaning of shared equipment or processing lines has been identified as one of the critical points for effective allergen control, there is little published information on the effectiveness of cleaning procedures for removing allergenic materials from processing equipment. There also is no consensus on how to validate or verify the efficacy of cleaning procedures."  Now, if I could only get access to the results of that study!

I found a ton of food industry articles on how to manage food allergens in the manufacturing processes as well as information on the type of tests available to test for allergen residue on equipment. A group from the University of Florida studied the effectiveness of commercial allergen test kits.  Their results were that the three common cleaning protocols regularly used in the food industry did not yield the same results. Some were better than others.  Does this mean that food allergy savvy parents need to ask what test kit a manufacturer uses to verify that there lines are clean and that there is no chance of cross-contamination?

In 2001, the Senior Health Policy Adviser for the Grocery Manufacturers Association offered testimony on the challenge of labeling food allergens. The speaker addresses the challenge of cleaning ingredients like peanut butter on manufacturing equipment.

In this testimony to a FDA panel, the Adviser states that water is the most efficient method for cleaning allergen residue.  However, certain ingredients cannot be removed by water.  Examples of those are peanut butter and chocolate.  In their case, a dry cleaning method where a non-allergen ingredient is flushed through the system must be employed.  Here's a statement directly from the testimony, "The use of dry ingredients to clean a system, however, is not always successful in removing allergens. Systems that rely on this type of cleaning frequently cannot be cleaned to remove all residues of a major allergen."  Well, that pretty much validates the Kashi statement.

On the other hand, I found a 2008 investigation also published in the Journal of Food Protection that looked at cleaning to reduce the cross-contamination of hazel nut product.  In this study, a bakery went from cookies with 10% ground hazelnut to no hazelnut.  Here's what they found: "In our pilot plant study, the application of an appropriate wet cleaning procedure in combination with quantitative monitoring of the cleaning efficiency reduced the hazelnut protein cross-contamination to a level at which severe hazelnut-related allergic reactions are unlikely to occur."  Does this make us feel better about eating those Hershey Kisses that might have been made on the same line as the Hershey bar with almonds?

So, what's a parent to do?  At the moment, I'm reluctantly planning on continuing to purchase products based on the company's allergen statement.  But, I will continue to participate in the online food allergy community message boards to keep up to date on what other parents are finding out about specific food manufacturers.  In the case of Hershey's, I read that if the label says "chocolate flavor", then it's a fake chocolate product using vegetable oil instead of cocoa.  I've got to go read some labels.  That'll make my decision to not purchase their products really easy!

A couple of notes:
I enjoy participating in the Forum section on and on a food allergy Hyperboard at
Also, the dad that posted about his daughter's reaction to the Rolo candy has sent the bag to FAAN for testing.  I have not contacted Hershey's regarding the information reportedly provided by the supervisor.


Rachelima said...

What a well written article! You need to submit this piece to FAAN and even more mainstream magazines or newspapers. You have really defined a daily problem with those of us dealing with food allergies. My son also had a reaction to Kashi foods that on the label had no nut products, but man, he had a strong reaction! We no longer have any of their products in our home. I think the severity of your child's allergy sensitivity makes a difference in the tolerance of cross-contamination issues - which just muddles the threshold of allergens permitable under any label. We just cook a lot from scratch since we can not rely on labeling or kitchen cleanliness issues.
Thanks for the awesome blog!

Mom with a Mission said...

Rachelima, thanks so much for the kind comments! I appreciate you taking the time to read and post your experience.

How ironic that your son reacted to a Kashi product when they're the company that made the statement that they label regardless of how well they clean the equipment because the risk is so high for cross-contamination. We eat Kashi cereal on a daily basis.

I've also started cooking from scratch. Not only is it so much better for our family, but apparently, we can't trust any manufacturer unless they operate a nut free facility.

Thanks again!

Julie Redfern said...

I just had a friend whose daughter (5 yrs) just had a cross-contamination scare that sent her to the hospital with an anaphylactic reaction. She had the reaction after eating something from Whole Foods. I agree that this and all your posts are so well written. NIce job Melanie!!

Mom with a Mission said...

Thanks Julie. Hate to hear about your friend's daughter. We've been so lucky to avoid an anaphylactic reaction, and hopefully, thanks to this study, will continue to be lucky! It's such a scary experience and not one that 5 year old little girl or her parents is going to forget any time soon. How unfortunate it was due to poor labeling!

Anonymous said...

This is my biggest frustration with learning of his diagnosis. Calling companies - b/c so many say they will label if they feel there is a chance of cross contamination. Sounds Great, huh. Well no b/c THEY feel because they clean there is no chance of contamination. That is not good enough for us!!! Even when I specifically ask "do you label if a product is made on a shared line with peanut products, REGARDLESS of your cleaning it?" I get the above response, but they are not answering my question!! It is so frustrating.

Anonymous said...

Well, does anyone know what the outcome of the FAAN testing on the Rolos was? I haven't been able to find any follow up. And I have spoken with Hersheys several times, from the customer service representatives to the supervisors; they have said that the plain and dark chocolate kisses are run on dedicated lines, but I hadn't heard that the 1.5 oz plain bars are. If anyone knows about the Rolo outcome, please share. Thanks!