According to recent data, up to 15 million Americans suffer from food allergies—affecting 1 in every 13 children under the age of 18 and bringing the economic cost of children’s food allergies alone to an estimated $25 billion per year. Food allergies among children increased approximately 50 percent between 1997 and 2011 while hospital admissions for severe reactions in children in Europe have risen seven-fold over the past decade. In a world survey conducted by the World Allergy Organization, the British Society for Allergy and Immunology reported that 25 percent of the adult and 25 percent of the childhood population in the U.K. suffer from one or more allergic diseases; however, the overall prevalence of allergic disease in the U.K.’s general population has remained stable over the past 10 years.
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Along with food allergies, allergen related product recalls continue to be on the rise in the European Union (EU), while in the U.S. undeclared allergens were reported as the single largest cause of food recalls, representing approximately 40 percent of recalls recorded in the third quarter of 2013 alone. According to recent quarterly recall index published by ExpertSOLUTIONS, USDA-registered product recalls increased by 33 percent in the second quarter of 2014 compared to the first quarter of the same year, with 50 percent of those recalls initiated due to undeclared allergens. These product recalls are mainly a result of simple operational errors such as failures in the review and approval of product labels; failures to load and/or change to the correct product packaging; failures to adequately review supplier information, such as supplier certificate of analysis, to spot the presence of allergens; etc. Unintentional cross-contamination is considered to be an important cause of allergen-related product withdrawals, although the majority of those recalls are a result of mislabeling and mis-packaging errors.
Prevention of cross-contamination can be achieved following different approaches listed amongst the recommended general practices: efficient cleaning of production lines and of equipment and utensils used in the product preparation and handling, strict separation of materials that may contain allergens, formal procedures for rework, and adequate personnel training programs. Publically accessible guidelines on effective allergen management and control have been published to use as a reference material. In Europe, FoodDrinkEurope published a guidance document on allergen management practices for food manufacturers in January 2013. The document provided an overview of key elements in allergen risk management, such as staff training, supplier management, raw material handling, equipment and factory design, documentation and record keeping, manufacturing processes, product development/reformulation, and consumer information. It also included some practical implementation tips, an allergen risk assessment model, and an overview of the latest European legislation on allergen labeling. In addition, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) published a new best practice guideline document on allergen management in March 2014 for food manufacturing sites that aimed to provide additional explanation of the allergen management requirements of the BRC Global Standard for Food Safety. It was designed to assist individuals and companies towards the development of robust allergen management systems and procedures that would meet the requirements of the Standard.
A recent industry survey carried out by SGS confirmed that although industry was familiar with the best practice approach to allergen management and control and adopted recommended practices to various extents, participants identified key knowledge gaps related to allergen labeling. Lack of a harmonized and consistent approach in allergen risk management and determination of safe allergen thresholds was identified as the top knowledge gap (67.1 percent of respondents) while a gap in knowledge around allergen cross-contamination labeling rules came third on the list (46.6 percent of respondents). Product labeling is an important risk management and communication tool and should help consumers make an informed choice about the products they are buying. There is no cure for the effective treatment of food allergies and therefore sensitive consumers would need to rely on avoidance, which is entirely dependent on the accuracy of the information included on the product label. Even though guidance exists as to what would constitute probable contamination, such guidance cannot discriminate the actual levels of such contamination that would be sufficient to elicit, or not, a reaction in sensitive individuals.