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Allergen management through cleaning

19 June 2022

Peter Littleton highlights the importance of allergen management in the food, dairy, beverage and brewing industries. 



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An allergen is a substance that can cause an allergic reaction. In some people, the immune system recognises allergens as foreign or dangerous. As a result, the immune system reacts by making a type of antibody called IgE to defend against the allergen. This reaction leads to allergy symptoms and can, in some cases, be deadly.

Common allergens relevant to food and beverage include egg, peanut, milk, nuts, soy, wheat, animal meat and fish.

Allergen management through cleaning is an essential control to reduce the risks to vulnerable consumers through the unintended cross-contact of allergenic proteins into other products.

To ensure against cross-contamination operatives undertaking cleaning activities following production of an allergen containing product, need to be aware of the vital role they play in preventing the cross-contact of allergenic proteins into subsequent batches or items.

There are three main steps that should be taken to tackle allergens. These include:

• Design of procedures:
Processes to follow that fit your business.
• Control: Implementing adequate cleaning procedures to prevent risk.
• Verification: Validating the results of the cleaning and its effectiveness.

If these three steps are followed they should provide the necessary tools for the rapid and effective detection of allergens that may cause allergy problems for consumers, identifying the causes of food contamination by allergens and implementing preventative measures to minimise future risks.

The key message is that this type of contamination is unlikely to be homologous as the early part of the run would contain potentially higher levels of extraneous protein simply because it would ‘harvest’ the debris on passing. It is for this reason that cleaning plays such a vital role in allergen management.

The type of surface being cleaned will determine the type of clean required. The cleanability of a surface, combined with the material of the surface, will determine the chemicals that can be used to successfully eliminate risk.

There are a range of products available for the elimination of allergens, based on enzymes and combinations of specific chemicals. These are characterised in the following way:

1. Efficacy against the main allergens
2. Decomposition and elimination of proteins and fatty residues
3. Neutral pH, non-corrosive for materials and low risk for the operator
4. Biodegradable – environmentally friendly
5. Validated – products that are tested against the most relevant allergens by external labs

Validation
Validation of the hygiene regime, the cleaning carried out, is a critical step in determining that practices, equipment and chemicals employed are fit for purpose to deliver a safe food production environment.

As an additional point, many questions are asked about the role that disinfection plays in allergen management.  In short, the application of disinfectants will have no material effect on allergens as proteins are not alive and so cannot be killed via this method.

Allergen validation is undertaken using Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA), which can provide specific analysis of the allergenic protein present as well as providing quantification information.   This analysis is undertaken in dedicated equipment often against standards which contain known levels of the allergenic protein of concern, thereby providing quantification of the level of allergenic protein present in the sample.

DNA analysis can also be used for the identification of allergens, however care must be taken as the regime assesses the presence of DNA and not allergenic protein presence. As an example, DNA analysis cannot distinguish between milk proteins and the presence of beef; or the use of chicken meat and the presence of egg protein.

Since the introduction of allergen labelling legislation in 2004, the pre-packed food industry has become experienced in managing allergen cross-contact including verification of cleaning activities – whilst allergen recalls continue, the majority of those involve incorrect packaging or labelling errors rather than hygiene controls. 

To undertake verification testing for allergen presence or absence the only available technology is one based on antibody assessment using either lateral flow or flow-through tests specific to the allergenic protein of concern. 

These tests are currently the best available technology for real-time rapid testing and whilst they have their limitations their use is highly recommended. Results are typically delivered in under 10 minutes with limits of quantification around the low PPM level, these results can be documented via photography and recording on monitoring reports.

ATP testing has, for many years, been utilised as a non-specific hygiene monitoring tool whereby the level of organic debris present on a surface can be readily assessed utilising a biochemical mechanism that highlights the debris.

As ATP is present in all living cells whatever the source, this technology’s use as a non-specific tool is well placed. However, when considering allergen management care must be exercised because vulnerable consumers react to the allergenic proteins present in the food matrix and not the organic matter. 

Protein is a cellular component and does not contain any ATP and circumstances often occur where the level of organic debris is low, but there is significant contamination with allergenic proteins which could represent a hazard to consumers. For this reason, care must be exercised when considering ATP assessment as a method for verifying that a clean involving allergenic protein has been successful.

As a rule of thumb, if there is significant organic debris present then it is highly likely that allergenic protein remains, however the reverse is not always the case. For this reason, users are advised not to rely on ATP assessment alone for verifying cleaning standards where allergens are involved.

Choosing the right chemical and enzyme-based products for the type of surface and following this with a well-designed and executed hygiene validation and verification regime will give the food producer peace of mind and a high degree of control over the safe and hygienic manufacture of its products.  In the end, allergen management is all about the standard of cleaning.

Peter Littleton is technical director at Christeyns Food Hygiene.


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