As of January 1, 2023, sesame became the ninth allergen required by FDA to be labeled on packaged foods in the United States. The update came as a part of the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research (FASTER) Act, which outlined the agency’s approach to identifying and evaluating food allergens. In addition to updating product labels, food processors and manufacturers who work with sesame need to review their handling of the ingredient—and that’s where color-coding plans come in.
Color-coded tools and color-coded cleaning rely on a system in which colors are used to designate specific sets of tools for sensitive products in a food-safe or hygiene-sensitive facility to prevent product cross-contamination from allergens, chemicals, and unwanted foreign bodies. There are several different types of basic color-coding plans: zone color coding, assembly process color coding, shift color coding, and allergen color coding. The allergen plan type is going to be the one most relevant for producers that use sesame.
A color-coding-by-allergen plan, in its most basic form, designates two colors: one for all the handling and cleaning tools and food-safe wearables that come into contact with the identified allergen ingredient, and a second color for those that don’t. Facilities that handle multiple allergens or use special chemicals might add additional colors and will often designate a separate color for use in places like restrooms or on floors and drains.
The Benefits of Color Coding
Generally speaking, a color-coding plan has many benefits: a safer staff and product, a more hygienic facility, better tool longevity, and a stronger food safety culture. A color-coding-by-allergen plan doubles down on some of these benefits in a unique way.
For all the audit components and checklists, food safety inspections boil down to one thing: safety. The reason allergens are treated differently in food processing and handling stems from the possible risk associated with the ingredient. According to FARE, allergies of all kinds are on the rise and affect millions of people in the U.S. For some, unintended exposure can be life-threatening.
A food safety inspector entering a facility with an allergen present wants to see that it’s being handled in a way that acknowledges and accounts for that risk. A color-coding plan demonstrates that understanding and helps satisfy documentation requirements for brand reputation through compliance to global standards and U.S. regulations including FSMA’s Preventive Controls food safety plans, HACCP plans, and GFSI criteria.
The Dos and Don’ts
While it’s a best practice to keep a color-coding plan as simple as possible, there are some very important dos and don’ts for ensuring that it has been set up for success. For allergen plans specifically, there are some special considerations.
Most often, color-coding plans with allergens in the mix will designate bright colors, such as orange, pink, purple, and lime, for allergen contact. These hues are immediately eye-catching should anything be out of place. As with any color-coding plan, it’s best that they contrast with other colors in the plan. Additionally, many processors will choose an allergen color assignment that contrasts with the product itself to ensure that a tool or tool piece that may have found its way into the food product can be spotted easily.
Because of the importance of preventing cross-contamination with allergens—especially in a facility that produces multiple allergen-containing products—it’s vital that you have the right tool storage, training materials, and facility signage. Suppliers should be able to work with you to verify that you have the best tools for your specific needs, whether that means customizing tool storage materials and design to fit your facility environment and cleaning methods, creating multilingual signage to fit the makeup of your team, or maybe adding your color-coding plan to employee badges for easy reference. Take your time with this step and incorporate whatever might make your color-coding plan functional and easy to follow in your unique facility.
Finally, if you are in a facility with an existing color-coding plan that now needs modification, it’s important to roll out the update in one complete sweep to avoid any confusion. As always, train, train, and train on the plan—as you roll it out, as you gain new employees, and over time to ensure that it works well for everyone and is second nature for your team.
Serfas is owner and president of R.S. Quality Products. Reach him at [email protected].
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