The number of people, who have to be alert to what foods they not only digest, but also often just come into contact with, is sizeable. Food allergies of some type affect about 2 percent of the adults in this country. If someone does not have to deal with this problem, chances are they have a member of their family who does. Nationwide, 8 percent of children need to be wary about what they put in their mouths.
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Explore This IssueAugust/September 2006
The FDA identifies eight foods that cause 90 percent of the allergic reactions – milk and milk products, eggs, legumes (peanuts and soy), tree nuts, wheat, crustaceans, fish and mollusks. Sufferers can experience swelling of the lips, digestive tract problems, skin flare-ups and constricted breathing – which sometimes can be fatal.
Other than those children who grow out of their allergies, there is no cure and those afflicted live with managing the problem. Since much of what we eat is processed food, food processors have to be vigilant, in keeping these people clear of those ingredients that can lead to bad reactions.
Food regulations dictate proper labeling to avoid these hazards so allergic suffers can steer clear of those ingredients, which are hazardous to them, but the real challenge happens on the food processing floor.
There are places where allergen control is easier than in others. For very large producers, teams are assigned full-time to targeting allergens. There are plants with large volumes of a single line. For example there might be one building where a product is run that has peanuts, and an entire other facility where it is run without.
Most operations do not have that luxury. The demands of many considerations bear down on the plant’s ability get on top of the allergen problem. The major issue is economic. With food processing having among the tightest margins in the business world, the pressure is always on to get more out of nearly every piece of equipment and every square foot of plant space in which a food processing company invests.
These are the realities in most plants that make allergen management tricky. Management wants to occupy as much floor space as possible with production equipment to maximize the use of the building. Processing lines snug up close to one another.
With many companies continually bringing on new food product lines to win the battle for retail shelf space, runs have become shorter, resulting in equipment being washed down in preparation for the batch with greater frequency. Facilities producing private label can be handling hundreds of product recipes in the course of months or even weeks.
The issue for allergen control comes down to a number of solutions, with the prime one being containment. Solid walls come to mind as being useful. But typically a food processing plant is a box. Within those four walls, management can reconfigure the processing layout to respond to changes in the product line and new approaches arising from continual improvement programs.
Keeping Allergens at Bay
Nevertheless, attention to allergens is just as important as these other issues if not more so. Bear in mind that even if just peanut dust happens to waft over onto a product not intended to have the legume, a minuscule quantity could prove fatal if indigested.
In this environment, vinyl curtain separation can be an essential means of keeping allergens in their place and the operation working efficiently during both production and sanitation. The big advantage of the curtains is they can separate production lines in the tightest spaces. The curtain can be hung to conform to the contours of floor area occupied by the equipment and the area needed to work around it.