The big questions remaining for the food and beverage industry are, how do I effectively clean, and further, how can I validate cleaning efficacy? Dr. Taylor points out that the FDA is working on it, and he hopes some standards will be set soon. “The FDA published a threshold notice in the federal register as part of the FALCPA in December of last year, and they sought public input. So, they are certainly seriously considering it.”
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Of course some sectors of the food and beverage industry and some types of facilities have a greater risk profile. “Any situation where you have a clean-in-place system, say like, dairy processing, that’s the ideal way to clean up because you can use copious amounts of aqueous fluids to do the cleaning,” says Dr. Taylor. Standards can be programmed in—all you have to do is push the button. “It’s much harder to do in any situation where you have to rely upon dry cleaning. Bakeries are a good example. Baking ovens are only partially accessible, and not easily cleaned.” Ensuring an allergy-free environment in such a case would likely involve the use of laboratory test kits, which are now widely available.
The biggest risk of allergen cross-contact is at your local restaurant. “That’s where most of the more serious reactions occur,” Dr. Taylor says. Foods are not labeled, as they would be in a grocery store, and the server may not really know all the ingredients of a certain dish.
“It’s pretty hectic in those kitchens during the dinner hour—could peanut residue from your entrée end up in mine? Probably. And because of that I know any number of peanut-allergic people who won’t eat in certain kinds of restaurants because they know that the risk is there.”
The biggest risk of allergen cross-contact is at your local restaurant.
Rapid Test Kits
Due to the rising prevalence of allergies to certain foods, and the relatively certainty of new regulatory standards, business in the testing sector is brisk.
“We have different diagnostic kits that you could use yourself in-house,” says Jennifer Baker, a product manager for Neogen, headquartered in Lansing, Mich.
Kits are based on antibody technology, such as enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, commonly known as ELISAs—these are quantitative. For more “yes or no” type testing there are swipe tests. “These can be done in five minutes, and it lets you know if you cleaned your surface well enough.”
As for the threshold of detection, “the tests have always been sensitive,” says Baker. “In many cases I think the kits are more sensitive than they need to be (since the FDA has yet to set the standards) but that provides an additional layer of security for the food manufacturers.”
While interest in allergen testing has been relatively constant of late, what Baker has noticed is a much greater interest in testing for gluten—a problem not described as an allergy per se, but a sensitivity. “We’re getting inquiries about kits for wheat seed allergen, and also barley and rye. That’s definitely been on the increase since the establishment of the gluten-free market.”
Neogen has also recently developed an assay for mustard. “A Canadian law recently went into effect that states that mustard must be included in labeling, so in the last year we introduced both a quantitative assay and a lateral flow test, we also added a new lateral flow test for sesame, also on the Canadian list.”
Necessity is sometimes the mother of re-invention—take the case of Lara Holland, a certified food allergy and gluten consultant for commercial kitchens based in southern California.
“I grew up with the belief that people with food allergies were just picky eaters,” recalls Holland. All through childhood she could eat anything, but then a serious illness in her twenties changed all that, and the average meal became a minefield.