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Allergens

Allergen Management: Best Practices For Food Manufacturers

By Evan Rosen
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Allergens

Allergenic foods are a serious safety risk. While harmless to most of the consumer population, they are harmful and even life threatening to some, causing serious medical reactions, such as anaphylactic shock, when foods with the allergenic protein are consumed. Scientific research and legislation have helped us understand a great deal about managing these food allergens in manufacturing. Yet so much more needs to be done in making these risks safer for the growing allergic population. In 2013, the CDC reported that food allergies among children increased by half from 1997 to 2011. As these numbers continue to rise for children and adults alike, what are the best practices for food manufacturers to include in managing food allergens? Here’s what you need to know.

Evan Rosen is participating as a panelist in the session “Rubber Meets the Road: Practical Compliance with FSMA and Preventive Controls” at the 2016 Food Safety Consortium. The session will be moderated by Rajan Gupta and Dana Johnson Downing of TraceGains | LEARN MOREResearch and Development for Allergen Programs

Thorough development and foresight are essential for any food manufacturer to succeed when implementing an allergen program in its processing. It is wise for food manufacturers to select the individuals in their company who are a good fit to lead the allergen program. When developing your program, create an “allergen map” to understand where allergenic ingredients are located in your plant and how they travel while products are processed.

The R&D stage is the optimal time to plan every step of the allergen management process—from supplier sourcing to cross contact in processing, to labeling and every step in between—before the risks are actually encountered. This is in line with the new preventive controls approach to be taken with FSMA’s Food Safety Plan model.

Purchasing, Labeling and Storing Ingredients

When purchasing ingredients from suppliers, your supply sources should be just as stringent about allergen management as you are in order to reduce liability. Require your suppliers to have an allergen map of their own and lettered documentation declaring that the items you are purchasing are free from contact with food allergens. The FDA food label law currently recognizes the top eight food allergens as:

  • Peanuts,Tree nuts—including almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts, among others
  • Milk (not to be confused with lactose intolerance)
  • Eggs
  • Wheat
  • Soy
  • Fish
  • Crustacean shellfish (crab, lobster, crawfish, etc.)

Also, be mindful of allergens that apply to the country of export, such as Sesame Seeds, Sulfites and Mustard Seed in Canada.

When receiving and storing supplier ingredients, check the labeled contents for any updates and tag the units that contain allergens so they can be easily identified and stored separately. A pictorial system is very effective. Ensure that each unit is tightly sealed, as even slight amounts of leaked allergens can pose recalls and elevated risks to your consumers.

Processing and Cleaning Cross-Contamination

Human error is only one factor that predisposes risk of cross-contact; production timing, processing lines, facility traffic, protein structure (e.g. powder, liquid, paste) and even the type of equipment used can be a game changer when it comes to the proper handling of allergens. In order to prevent allergen cross contact, scheduling long lines of products with common allergens is recommended to minimize changeovers. Dedicate unique tools, utensils and equipment that will handle the allergen if possible, as every piece contacting an allergen must be washed before handling allergen-free processing.

Assign plant employees to specific locations to avoid risk of cross-contact travel—color coding uniforms helps a great deal in managing this concept. Manufacturing equipment that is designed for easy cleaning is also ideal. For cleaning procedure of cross-contact removal, wet cleaning methods are most effective followed by dry methods. These procedures should be validated using a recognized protein-specific test method such as lateral flow or ELISA. When flushing, be sure to keep the flushed material isolated from all allergen-free areas. Careful separation and mindfulness is key to a successful allergen program.

Staff Training and Education

In order for any allergen program to be effective, all plant, production staff, contractors and visitors must be aware of the importance of it and understand the impact it has on consumers. Incorporating different learning methods helps to communicate this to them. Occasional testing and validation of applying this knowledge ensures the integrity of your allergy-free claims and establishes trust. Passion and commitment also play a vital role in achieving success in your program as a whole.

From purchasing ingredients to staff education and cross-contact prevention, one can see that plenty of work and forethought goes into having an allergen management program. With these best practices in place, food manufacturers can be well prepared for the increasing demand of allergen safe products for consumers across national and international markets.

Neogen Responds to Cumin and Spice Blend Contamination Involving Peanut

The company has announced that its comprehensive line of food allergen tests includes quantitative and screening test kits that can quickly and accurately detect peanut and almond allergens in cumin and spice blends.

In response to recent recalls of products containing cumin found to be contaminated with peanuts and almonds, Neogen has announced that its comprehensive line of food allergen tests includes quantitative and screening test kits that can quickly and accurately detect peanut and almond allergens in cumin and spice blends.

Neogen’s AOAC-approved Veratox® for Peanut Allergen has been validated to detect and fully quantify peanut residues in cumin in about 30 minutes, with minimal training and equipment. Neogen also offers its Alert® for Peanut Allergen, which screens samples at 5 parts per million (ppm), and is based on the same technology of its Veratox test. The company offers the same options to test samples for the presence of almonds. In addition, the Reveal® for Peanut Allergen test kit is an effective screening tool for the presence of peanut residues in these sample types.

For companies that prefer not to do their own on-site testing, Neogen also offers a rapid laboratory testing service at its locations in Lansing, Mich., and Ayr, Scotland.

“Both food allergic consumers and food producers rely on the accurate labeling of food products to protect themselves from the consequences of the accidental ingestion of food allergens,” said Tony Lupo, Neogen’s Director of Technical Services. “Testing that we have done with numerous raw ingredient and finished product samples containing cumin have detected the presence of peanuts, in high levels in some cases. Tests can protect businesses in the food value chain — and their consumers.”

Neogen’s tests detect both the nut and residual protein remaining in shell components of peanuts and almonds.

Neogen has created a special website where processors, producers and test labs can go for further information, including a new white paper on contaminated cumin. The address is www.neogen.com/CuminResponse. On the site you will find information on contacting Neogen to speak to a specialist, and be able to download our new white paper, our allergen supplier checklist, and our Food Allergen Control Handbook.

Neogen’s food allergen testing products have been developed in close cooperation with the University of Nebraska’s Food Allergy Research and Resource Program (FARRP). FARRP is a food industry and university partnership that was formed to provide research and resource tools to the food industry. It is the leader in training and educating the industry on allergen awareness.

Neogen Corporation develops and markets products dedicated to food and animal safety. The company’s Food Safety Division markets dehydrated culture media, and diagnostic test kits to detect foodborne bacteria, natural toxins, food allergens, drug residues, plant diseases and sanitation concerns. Neogen’s Animal Safety Division is a leader in the development of animal genomics along with the manufacturing and distribution of a variety of animal healthcare products, including diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, veterinary instruments, wound care and disinfectants.

Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

Food Spoilage and Food Loss in Retail Environments

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

It can be frustrating to consumers to discover some rotten fruits or not-so-fresh vegetables in their grocery packs in spite of due diligence at the stores. It also leaves a bad taste in the mouth while in your favorite restaurant, you’re served cold food, observe that the taste is just not right, the color of your favorite menu is not the same again or become suspicious that the food texture has been compromised and it doesn’t feel crispy or crunchy any more.

These are the tell-tale signs of food spoilage that customers are confronted with on a daily basis. In foodservice and retail environments, food spoilage constitutes a major food safety and food quality hazard with far reaching regulatory implications as well as being an economic burden with considerable food loss and profit loss. Food manufacturers and processors have achieved a high level of food preservation through several advanced technologies including heat treatment, temperature and water control, pasteurization and canning, specialized packaging like reduced oxygen packaging, fermentation and antimicrobial preservatives. However, food spoilage remains a major challenge in retail and food service. This is mostly as a result of the many food processing and preparation activities, food storage practices, repackaging and food portioning that are required in retail.

In addition, the modern consumers’ preference for fresh foods and the backlash on the use of unnatural preservatives leave foods more vulnerable to spoilage resulting in substantial food loss. Here, we discuss some of the challenges of food spoilage and how to minimize its impact on food safety, quality assurance and profitability in retail food operations.

Spoiled ApplesThe most important proactive measure against food spoilage is a tight managerial control on Supplier Food Safety and Quality Assurance. The condition of the food items upon delivery to the retail units will impact the overall shelf life, taste, texture, structural integrity and pathogen level during storage and food preparation activities. Food transportation best practices, cold chain requirements, temperature monitoring system, freeze-thaw detection, appropriate packaging, adulteration prevention and food tracking should be addressed at the supplier level to ensure that deliveries are wholesome safe quality foods. Integrated pest management at suppliers’ facilities and delivery trucks are also essential. Random testing of food products for pathogen content and quality control will assist in compliance with FDA/USDA regulations and internal corporate standards.Thus, a comprehensive evaluation and verification of the supplier food safety and quality assurance programs will help to ensure compliance with all relevant federal/State/local regulations (see previous blog on Supplier Qualification and Compliance using GFSI Benchmarking).

After suppliers deliver safe quality foods, in-store food safety and quality assurance control measures must be activated immediately to maintain safe quality food status until food is served to the customer.

At the retail units, appropriate food handling and storage practices to eliminate cross-contamination is key.

The use of rapid cleanliness monitoring test swabs to validate clean and sanitary food contact surfaces will enable timely corrective actions that would eliminate potentially hazardous food cross-contamination.

Proper hand hygiene by all foodservice employees should be mandatory.

Keeping cold food cold and warm food warm is a food safety mantra that ensures foods don’t get to the temperature danger zone. Temperature monitoring systems for freezers and refrigerators using wireless technologies will ensure a better food storage control even during non-business hours.

Emergency preparedness training for natural disasters and power outages should be in place to avoid surprises.

Compliance with FDA regulations for safe refrigerated storage, hot holding, cooling and reheating of food within the time and temperature criteria will help eliminate spoilage organisms and preserve the taste, texture and overall quality of food throughout its shelf life, especially for meat and poultry products.

Proper management of products’ shelf life, expiration dates and observing the principle of first in first out (FIFO) should be encouraged. In fact, the food code requires a system for identifying the date or day by which food must be consumed, sold or discarded. Product date marking enables compliance with this food code requirement to date mark all prepared food products, and to demonstrate a procedure that ensures proper discarding of food products on or before the date of expiration. Local health inspectors reference these product date marking labels and enforce them, in addition to food prep activities that may lead to cross-contamination, adulteration or spoilage. Inventory control, forecasting and Lean Six Sigma are important tools for managing food supplies, storage, preparation, stock replenishing and elimination of excess food items that may get past their shelf life.

Raw proteins (meat, sea food and poultry) are arguably the largest cross-contamination sources for pathogens in foodservice. Any novel pathogen reduction or elimination process like the potential production of pathogen-free chicken would be a welcome relief, and will not only save money and labor; it would protect the public health as well.

Produce (fruits and vegetables) remains the largest source of foodborne illness outbreaks in United States, because it’s a ready-to-eat food that doesn’t get the benefit of cooking at high sterilizing temperatures. An effective pathogen kill step for produce using consumer-friendly natural washes like electrolyzed water may serve as a gate keeper in case the safety system fails at the plant level. Ice-cold electrolyzed water is also known to refresh produce and may extend their shelf life as well.

GMO-food products could be engineered to resist pests and spoilage organisms with improved shelf life, but its general acceptability and the FDA labeling disclosure requirements are still contentious issues.

While industry is racing to develop several promising anti-spoilage technologies, active managerial control of the various components of an effective food safety and quality assurance system remains the best practice against food spoilage and associated food losses in retail food operations.

Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

Combating Norovirus Hazards in Retail Food Service – Part 3

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

In the past two weeks, this blog has covered how Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness worldwide, some potential sources of outbreak, and the importance of proper handwashing, developing an employee health policy, building a comprehensive food safety program, and training of employees. One critical aspect of Norovirus management is proper attention paid to cleaning and disposal of body fluids.

Proper cleaning and disposal of body fluids

The food code requires that retail foodservice establishments have proper procedures in place for emergency body fluids clean-up. Body fluids incidents in the dining room, play areas or back of the house are arguably the single most important source of Norovirus cross contamination in the restaurant, if clean-up and disposal are not performed according to standard operating procedures. The components of an effective and compliant SOP for emergency body fluids clean-up may include the following:

  • Written step by step procedure to contain, isolate, clean and disinfect affected areas;
  • Ready and easily accessible emergency body fluid clean-up kit;
  • Use of PPEs like disposable aprons, gloves and protective eye glasses;
  • Norovirus approved disinfectant as a kill step before and after clean-up;
  • Containment of body fluids spill using absorbent yellow spill pads to reduce aerosols;
  • Affected area should be isolated to avoid accidental dispersal by guests;
  • Discard all affected open food and decontaminate all affected surfaces;
  • Stop all food prep until body fluids are contained, cleaned and affected area disinfected;
  • Perform clean-up with disposable towels and yellow spill pads for easy disposal;
  • Wear triple gloves to avoid contaminating the clean-up kit and storage area;
  • Dispose clean-up trash straight in outside dumpster without passing through kitchen; and
  • Employee must wash hands twice, first in the bathroom and then in the kitchen.

The pathogen kill-step is the most important step in the body fluid clean-up process. The preferred option is to use a disinfectant grade chemical instead of regular sanitizers.

Ecolab’s Insta-Use Multi-purpose Disinfectant Cleaner is effective against Norovirus (and other viruses), mold, mildew and bacteria. It cleans, deodorizes and disinfects in one labor saving step and packaged in an easy to use compact cartridge with less storage space requirement. Caution: Disinfectant is not approved for food contact surfaces and cannot be used as a replacement for regular sanitizers on food contact surfaces.

Proper training of team members and associates is required before use to encourage compliance.

In conclusion, Norovirus is still a major infectious pathogen associated with foodservice operations in spite of several regulatory control and technological advances to curtail its occurrence and prevalence. Until a viable vaccine or an effective drug becomes available against Norovirus, rigorous implementation of food safety procedures, behavioral changes and continuous training of both foodservice workers and customers will remain the industry’s best practices at prevention and control. Overall, it makes a lot of business sense to do all that it takes to protect your customers against the threat of Norovirus infection, and by so doing, equally protect your business brand and the entire public health.

Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

Combating Norovirus Hazards in Retail Food Service – Part 2

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

Last week, in this blog we discussed that Norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne illness worldwide, some potential sources of outbreak, and the importance of proper handwashing and cleaning and disposal of body fluids. In this second part of the blog, we will cover developing an employee health policy, building a comprehensive food safety program, and training of employees.

Develop an employee health policy

It is important to develop an employee health policy with detailed guidelines for sick employees. Sick foodservice workers are required to stay off work until fully recovered and cleared by their Doctor. When an employee becomes sick at work, such an employee must report to the immediate supervisor, and be allowed to leave work to attend to the ill-health. Reportable diseases must be reported upon diagnosis to enable the Local Health Department and affected foodservice establishment take necessary actions to protect the public health. There should be a crisis management plan in case the media gets involved in any such reportable infectious disease situations. To enable ill-health reporting compliance by employees, foodservice establishments are encouraged to adopt an employee health policy that is not punitive in nature.

Managers and supervisors should also be trained to recognize abnormal behaviors and tell-tale signs of ill-health in employees who may choose not to report due to the potential of losing hourly wages. Employee health policy training should be mandatory – to report injuries, ill-health and to follow the exclusion policy from food prep until fully certified and cleared to return to work by the Doctor.

For more resources on employee health policy, please see FDA’s Employee Health and Personal Hygiene Handbook for practices and behaviors of food service workers that can help reduce the spread of infectious diseases in retail food operations.

Self-auditing of food safety procedures

Active managerial control will enable verification of the food safety program for potential corrective actions that may be required including retraining of staff. A self-auditing system will ensure that risk mitigation is applied at every stage of foodservice operations with HACCP plans implemented and verified. In addition, a third party auditing will identify the weak links in the system and help prepare the establishment for Local Health inspections. Proper cleaning and sanitation of contact surfaces, observing the temperature rule – keeping cold food cold and hot food hot or routine cleaning and sanitizing of high touch points surfaces are examples of food safety procedures that managers can evaluate and verify on daily basis to continue serving safe quality food to customers. Effective implementation of these food safety standard will have a direct correlation with reduction in cross-contamination including Norovirus prevention.

Comprehensive supplier food safety program

Food can get contaminated at any point during the farm to fork journey. A robust supplier food safety program will ensure better control of potential risk transfer in retail food operations. A system that ensures that approved certified suppliers are continuously verified will capture any potential system failure and implement corrective action both at the supplier and retail levels. The use of approved suppliers is an important risk mitigation step that should be mandatory and verified to ensure that all deliveries are of the highest food safety and quality standard. Since risk burden may be accentuated at retail foodservice due to multiple operational processes in the kitchen, it is important to assess the risk burden at the supplier level, to enable effective mitigation. Thus, a dedicated supplier food safety monitoring, evaluation and verification is absolutely required at retail foodservice to assist in eliminating any food safety weak link in the supply chain. The safe quality food outcome will remain complementary and supportive of the supply chain’s mission of “never run out”.

Training of employees on standard operating procedures

Proper and continuous training of employees is fundamental to a successful food safety program in retail food operations. We may have the best food safety program in place but if these important SOPs are not properly implemented at every operational step as a result of training gap, it may in fact introduce a greater risk into the system. Since most hourly foodservice workers are young adults with a higher than normal turn-over rate, effective communication and continuous training will help keep a good handle on the food safety know-how of each batch of employees. Consequently, it is absolutely necessary to have a certified food safety manager as the person-in-charge to oversee foodservice operations. Training the trainers, managers and training directors will assist in meeting the training needs of all employees including hourly and temporary workers and for compliance with food code requirements.

Online food safety courses and training is the preferred method of instruction for most large retail foodservice chains. These training materials can be accessed anywhere in handheld devices and can be updated in real time. Online training however should not be a replacement for personalized one-on-one onsite training on the job. Hand washing compliance, no bare hands contact with RTE foods, clean-up of body fluids, separating high risk raw chicken, beef and sea foods from RTE foods using a color coded system, and observing critical control points in the food prep process are some of the SOPs that require continuous training and verification to ensure compliance.

In conclusion, Norovirus is still a major infectious pathogen associated with foodservice operations in spite of several regulatory control and technological advances to curtail its occurrence and prevalence. Until a viable vaccine or an effective drug becomes available against Norovirus, rigorous implementation of food safety procedures, behavioral changes and continuous training of both foodservice workers and customers will remain the industry’s best practices at prevention and control. Overall, it makes a lot of business sense to do all that it takes to protect your customers against the threat of Norovirus infection, and by so doing, equally protect your business brand and the entire public health.

Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B
Retail Food Safety Forum

Combating Norovirus Hazards in Retail Foodservice

By Dan Okenu, Ph.D.
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Dan Okenu, Ph.D., Food Safety Manager, H-E-B

Norovirus is the number one cause of foodborne disease outbreaks worldwide. It makes people sick causing nausea, stomach cramping, vomiting and diarrhea or “stomach flu” and leads to a lot of discomfort and even death, especially in vulnerable populations like children and the elderly. Elevated risk of infection is associated with certain foods that are served raw, like fruits and vegetables, contaminated ready-to-eat (RTE) foods, or improperly cooked Oysters from contaminated waters. According to the CDC, Norovirus is the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated foods in the United States, especially in retail foodservice settings like restaurants.

Some of the potential sources of Norovirus outbreaks in retail foodservice are as follows:

  • Infected food handlers
  • Infected non-food workers and guests
  • Bare hands contact with RTE foods
  • Contamination of food deliveries at source
  • Improper cleaning and disposal of body fluids
  • Training gap on sanitizer and disinfectant use
  • Aerosolized vomitus around food and people
  • Contaminated food contact and non-food contact surfaces
  • Improper hand washing by food handlers
  • Cross contamination from restrooms
  • Cross contamination from high touch points in the back of the house

It is apparent from the statistics that Norovirus constitutes a major hazard to the retail foodservice industry. The good news, however, is that there are a lot of cost-effective strategies that can be implemented in a proactive manner to reduce its spread and impact on businesses, protect customers and the bottom line. Some of these preventive measures will be discussed here and in next week’s blog post.Norovirus_thumb

Proper Hand Washing by Foodservice Workers

Proper hand washing is the most cost-effective method for preventing cross-contaminations including Norovirus in a retail foodservice environment. Hand wash sinks should be appropriately located to encourage compliance by both foodservice workers and guests. For example; the food code requires handling dry clean dishes with clean hands during the dish washing process. Thus, it makes a lot sense to install a hand wash sink in close proximity to an automated dishwasher. This will enhance hand washing compliance by Team Members before handling and stacking dry clean dishes. Adequate soap and hand sanitizers should be provided at all hand washing stations including restrooms. Whereas the use of hand sanitizers is not a replacement for proper hand washing with soap, there is evidence that hand sanitizers are effective against Norovirus. Proper hand washing remains the preferred option however, since the use of soap can indeed get rid of other cross contaminating organic matter and dirt. Incentive programs may be used to encourage frequent and proper hand washing by foodservice workers. More resources may be found at handwashingforlife.com to help foodservice establishments update their hand washing culture.

While enforcing proper hand washing among foodservice employees is desirable, it is also advisable to encourage hand washing among guests. Norovirus can be transmitted by infected guests to the foodservice establishment especially in buffet style restaurants where guests come in very close proximity with RTE foods. Facility design that encourages hand washing by guests was elegantly captured by the Florida based PDQ restaurant chain that installed a hand wash sink in their main dining room with a strong brand statement that “quality and clean go hand in hand”. The strategic location of a hand wash sink encourages hand washing by guests, especially among children in the full view of their parents, and with less cross contaminating contact surfaces as found in the restrooms.

Restroom Cleaning and Sanitation

Color coded cleaning and sanitizing tools are recommended for restrooms to prevent cross contamination. Tools will be dedicated for use in restrooms only and stored in a dedicated storage or closet to avoid accidental use in other areas of the foodservice establishment. The restroom can be the most important part of the restaurant with opportunities to prevent infections. Guests may also use the cleanliness of the restroom as a measure of food safety commitment by the retail food establishment (see my previous blog on “Clean Matters”). Thus, extra efforts are required to maintain and keep restrooms in a clean and sanitary condition all the time. Use of disinfectant grade chemicals for disinfecting restrooms, body fluids clean-up and high touch point areas is recommended. The alternative of preparing high concentration sanitizers is laborious and prone to mistakes by foodservice workers. In addition, such high concentrated sanitizers like 1000 – 5000 ppm chlorine-based sanitizer can be a safety concern to employees when used without PPEs. Frequent cleaning, disinfecting and replenishing of hand soap and sanitizers in the restroom are effective measures against restroom infections and cross contaminations including Norovirus.

Stay tuned for more preventative measures to be discussed in next week’s blog post…