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Don’t let allergens drive you nuts

23 March 2020

Sue Springett explains what segregation procedures should be put in place wherever there is a cross-contamination risk. 

Despite the UK and EU sharing some of the most rigorous food safety regulations in the world, we still see regular product recalls due to contamination risk. In fact, the most recent figures from the Food Standards Authority (FSA) saw allergy alerts rise by over one-quarter (28%) year-on-year for 2018-2019.

There is still some time to wait before the next set of FSA figures, however one month into the new decade we have already seen a number of allergen-related recalls which have impacted five major UK supermarkets chains.  

While there are a range of factors contributing to these alerts, with labelling errors a common culprit, cross-contamination poses a very real danger to life, so manufacturers have an ethical responsibility to do all in their power to keep consumers safe. 

Increasingly manufacturers are looking to cut cross-contamination risk by producing foods containing allergens at separate sites. However, this is not always practical, or indeed possible, for many smaller businesses. When this solution is not an option, rigorous segregation procedures need to be put in place to minimise cross-contamination risks. This should begin at the front door with a further series of precautionary steps in place before reaching the production area. 

The most obvious starting point is to prohibit any allergic materials coming on to the premises. For example, if it’s a nut-free facility the list of banned consumer products could be extensive and could include particular cosmetics, face creams, lip salves, and even some medicines. 

You cannot be too careful so it is worth checking the ingredients list on cleaning products. Although it is highly unusual, some bleaches and detergents can contain peanut traces. 

This list of controlled products should be displayed prominently in the reception area and offending items should make it no further into the facility. However, it is also worth reposting this list in changing areas and washrooms as the final check. It is also worth bearing in mind that not everyone in a food processing facility will speak English as a first language and in this case it is important that all signage should be multilingual.    

People will always be the least predictable factor of any process, so education is key. All staff should be fully trained in allergen control, so they are fully aware of the potential impacts and how to minimise any risk. This cannot be a tick-box exercise, establishing a hygiene culture requires an ongoing education programme and constant reminders, which go over and beyond signage. 

Success or failure will come down in part to psychology. Environmental sloppiness excuses sloppiness of thinking and laxity of procedures, so it pays to maintain the highest hygiene standards throughout the facility. If it looks well-presented, then this will more likely be mirrored in attitudes and behaviours.   

On the production floor, visual cues will help minimise cross-contamination risk by discouraging staff from crossing into different production areas. You can reinforce this by colour-coding zones, not only through the colour scheme, but also aligned to the colour of the cleaning tools, such as brushes, brooms and deck scrubs. It is the small details that help to prevent human error. 

Anti-microbial PVC curtains can also be deployed between areas to reinforce the fact staff are crossing a threshold into a controlled zone.

While preventative measures are the key to reducing cross-contamination risk, cleaning processes remain as important as ever. If there is any chance a cross-contamination incident could have occured, then it is vital to complete a deep clean that includes a full sterilisation of the area in question. Food factory furniture should also align closely to Quality by Design (QbD) principles. Look carefully for risk factors in (bad) design, particularly in relation to potential harbourage points where contaminated residue could collect and cause further issues. 

There is unfortunately no easy way to manage allergenic risk. It requires constant vigilance coupled with highly considered routines to help staff maintain the standards required.

Sue Springett is commercial manager at Teknomek.

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