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.