I’m going to say right off that I am not a fan of the “may contain” allergen warnings on food. While it is still accepted and acceptable practice, it is bad business and bad for consumers. The simple fact is that the food you eat either has allergens in it and those allergens will show up in protein testing of that food, or it does not. The idea that it might is basically a concession that the producer of that food may make a mistake, or may not have a strong enough system in place and so an allergen sufferer should steer clear.
If a producer has a robust enough food safety and quality program, there should not be a need to put a vague warning on the label, because the hypothetical allergens are not there, full stop. If the company is unsure enough (or making enough errors in manufacturing) that they might actually need a warning to consumers that the allergens might be in the food accidentally, they really should be another line of work. The maybe/possibly statement is on the label only to prevent a lawsuit from a stray consumer, it will not stop a recall (like this egg allergen issue caused by incorrect labeling of croissants by the company Bakers of Paris at Northern California Whole Foods stores recently).
The general problem from a business standpoint is that the company loses customers in the effected population out of what would be and should be an over abundance of caution in a well-run food safety system. Beyond that, it only potentially saves money in one scenario (a lawsuit), while failing to protect the company from the astronomical costs of having to issue a recall. In the example linked above, even if Bakers of Paris/Whole Foods had put a warning that the effected croissants might have had egg in it, it wouldn’t have been sufficient since all the croissants definitely had egg, and in a sufficient quantity to hurt someone (which is likely what triggered the recall). In the previous allergen post, I got into examples of how undeclared allergen issues occur and this looks pretty clearly like a situation I described there. The manufacturer, Bakers of Paris, was using an egg bath, dipping or spraying the dough with egg, which is a common baking process. However, they did not list eggs on the ingredient deck and/or allergen declaration, and did not properly disclose this to the retailer, Whole Foods. You might argue that a generic warning about the possibility of eggs being in the food would be prudent, and would have prevented sick consumers, and that would be true. But it is also a crazy way to do business. If the croissants had been made as was indicated on the label, without eggs, then the people who ate it would have had no problems and more people can eat the pastries. Suggesting that anyone who cannot or does not eat eggs loses customers where close attention to details will prevent that.
With all of that in mind, lets look at what is required to prevent allergen contamination in food.
As we shift over to discussing how companies prevent undeclared allergens, I want to mention the FSMA Act of 2011, and the preventative control rules (also know as HARPC or PC) put into effect last year and this year that compel companies to have and document an allergen program in the production process. The new law is a bit of formality, since most companies had at least a skeleton of an allergen program in place going back to the original allergen laws in 2004. That said, companies do have to show that they are keeping close track of the allergens in their system, and that they are preventing unintended allergens in their system as well as cross contamination on their equipment.
To do that, companies must first have strong compliance and documentation systems so that they know what their suppliers are sending them. For companies with long lists of ingredients, this can be a major challenge. To get a good sense of just how hard it is to keep track of ingredient paperwork, imagine tracking down the 5-10 documents needed to understand the details for each of the ingredients in the foods you ate just this week. Unless you only ate from your garden, you’d be looking at 20-30 hours of work to track down the information on dozens of ingredients (and even if you were diligent about it, there would likely be gaps in the information you got back).
Putting a strong system in place means having a modern database and the staff to constantly monitor the documentation so that it is up-to-date.
With that in place, scheduling has to be monitored carefully so that the sequence of production prevents any allergens touching equipment before products without that allergen (if a company produces 10-20 items a week, that can become confusing). Next, a company has to have complete control over their labels, and those labels have to match the ingredient documents and the process. Lastly, a sanitation program has to be in place for all of the points where the food touches a surface (just thinking about scoops, knives and other utensils), and you have to prove that the sanitation program actually removes allergens. Oh, and also, hand soaps (yeah, some are made with allergens), machine lubricants, warehouse routes, worker clothes, workers shoes, trash removal routes, storage areas, bulk tanks, trucks, trains, and any other conceivable weakness in the system. It’s a lot to think about.
For small and medium sized companies, or for out-sourced manufacturing arrangements, having a strong and constant handle on all the documents and parts of the system that are required to prevent allergens from accidentally being introduced into food is challenging. It requires a serious program and an equally serious commitment to managing that program effectively. With all of that in mind, I find it inappropriate to relay on a warning that maybe the food possibly has an allergen in it. The system, the documents, the training and review, all of the aspects of allergen control need to be in place, and they need to be effective. A company that has those in place can declare the allergens that are in the product, and let all other consumers buy the product with confidence.
In the next post, I’ll get into gluten and other food sensitivities that are technically chemical hazards in food.