Food Allergens A Brief Review

Food Allergens...A Brief Review & A Good Reminder

Since you are in the meat and food industry, you are probably aware that certain food ingredients have been associated with adverse reactions, such as food allergies and intolerances.  It is always a good idea to keep your employees aware of such ingredients as well.  Not only could they create adverse reactions to the customers that consume your products, they could also create some very significant reactions by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) personnel, if they are not addressed properly.  Such FSIS reactions may include a recall of the product in question.

Studies indicate that over 11 million Americans suffer from one or more food allergies.  A food allergy is caused by a naturally-occuring protein in a food or a food ingredient, which is referred to as an "allergen."  For unknown reasons, certain individiuls produce immunoglobulin E (lgE) antibodies specifically directed to food allergens.  Essentially, the allergic response is part of the defense mechanism used by the human body to fight off these undesireable proteins.  When these sensitive individuals ingest sufficient concentrations of foods containing these allergens, the allergenic proteins interact with IgE antibodies and elicit an abnormal immune response.

The gastrointestinal response to allergens is typical of many other illnesses, such as nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, etc.  On the other hand, oral responses, such as hives, swelling of various parts of the body, ichy rashes, wheezing, and shortness of breath, are frequent responses to food allergens.  The response to allergens can be immediate, within minutes of consumption, or may be delayed by 24 hours or more.  An immidiate reaction is the classial response as induced by IgE antibodies and histamine release.  The most serious response to an allergen is when multiple symptoms develop simultaneously and intensely.  This exaggerated, hypersensitive reaction is termed anaphylactic shock.  This can result in severe respiatory problems or cardivascular collapse within minutes and, in severe cases, can result in death.

Eight Major Foods That Cause Allergic Reactions
In January, 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Admisintration (FDA) implemented the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALPCA), requiring food labels to indicate if the product contains any of the "Big 8" allergens.  Since food and beverage manufacturers are continually making improvments, food-allergic persons should read the food label for every product purchased, each time it is purchased.

The FALPCA identified the eight major food ingredients as allergens that account for 90% or more of food allergies.  Although many foods, with or without identifiable allergens, have been reported to cause food allergies, FSIS and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) believe there is scientific consensus that the following eight major foods/allergy-related substances can cause serious adverse immunological or allergic reactions in sensitive individuals due to the proteins in these foods:

  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Fish (such as bass, flounder, or cod)
  • Crustacean shellfish (such as crab, lobster, or shrimp)
  • Peanuts
  • Tree Nuts (such as almonds, pecans, or walnuts)
  • Wheat
  • Soybeans

One of the most common allergies is a reaction to cow's milk.  This is the most common in infants and young children, but some adults remain sensitive.  Milk is one of the foods with mulitple allergens.  Both casein (80% of milk protein) and B-lactoglobuin (whey protein) have been determined to be allergenic.  Other milk proteins may be allergenic to a lesser degree.  Consequently,  any milk protein product used as a nonmeat ingredient should be viewed as a potential allergen.

Eggs are another source of multiple allergen proteins.  Egg white proteins (ovomucoid, ovalbumin, and ovotransferrin) are more allergenic than egg yolk and have been more completely characterized.  Interestingly, chicken eggs are reported to be more allergenic than a duck's egg.

Fish are the third common source of multiple allergens and one that has been implicated in cases of fatal anaphylactic shock.  Codfish seems to be a frequent source among the fish species, but the frequency could be related to relative amounts consumed, since cod is very common in some parts of the world.  The specific Gad c 1 and Ag-17-cod proteins have been identified as allergens associated with cod, while the protamine sulfate has been identified with the salmon/trout families.

Crusteans are another "seafood" source of potential allergy reactions.  Shrimp have been the most studied with two allergens identified.  Shrimp, crab, lobster, and crawfish have all been determined to contain multiple allergens, but specific information on the proteins is very limited.

Allergic responses to peanuts are probably the most widely-recognized because of publicity and general awareness.  Children are frequently exposed to peanut butter at an early age, so reactions may become obvious; but unlike milk allergies, peanut allergies are seldom outgrown.  It appears that there are a large number of peanut proteins that can serve as allergens.  Twenty or more proteins from peanuts have been reported to be allergenic.  As little as 2mg of peanut protein has been shown to induce reactions in sensitive individuals.  Tree nuts, including almonds, Brazil nuts, hazel nuts, and pistachio nuts, have also been found to contain one or more allergens, but these have not been well characterized.

Cereal products, such as wheat, rye, and barley, contain significant amounts of gluten as proteins.  Reactions to grain dust are a common enviornmental problem for individuals who experience asthma-like symptoms when exposed.  However, skin-test reactivity has also shown proteins from wheat to test positive for allergic responses, and ceral proteins are considered to be a considerable potential allergen.

Soy proteins have been found to contain more than one allergen, but specific identification has not been made.  Research reports do not agree on which of the 2S, 7S or 11S protein fractions contain the greatest allergenic potential.

As processors you should think beyond the scope of these eight major foods/allergy-related substances.  It is commonly unterstood that cheese is a milk product, but did you think about the fact that soy sauce is a soybean product?  Soy sauce is produced from the fermentation of soybeans and therefore may be considered in close relationship to soybeans and its potential allergic efect.

Ingredients That May Cause Allergen-Like Reactions
Certain food intolerances can cause reactions which do not involve the immune system.  These problems are caused by an abnormality in the metabolism of a particular food component.  Lactose intolerence is an example where susceptible individuals do not metabolize lactose normally.  In this case, there is no immune system response, thus it is not an allergic reaction.

It is known that there are many foods and food ingredients to which some individuals may have some degree of intolerance or possible allergic reaction.  If you recall, FSIS Notice 45-05 (Verification of Activities Related to an Establishment's Controls for the Use of Ingredients of Public Health Concern) directed FSIS inspection program personnel to be aware of the "Big 8" allergen food ingredients, as well as other ingredients.  These other ingredients that may cause potential adverse reactions in sensitive individuals were identified as monosodium glutamate (MSG), sulfites, lactose, and Yellow 5 (tartrazine).  The adverse reactions to these substances are due to the ingredient itself or it chemical composition.

Managing Food Allergy
If a food allergy is diagnosed, the only proven therapy is avoidance of the offending food.  Because there are no drugs or allergy shots on the market today to alter the long-term course of food allergy, elimination diets are prescribed.  Each diet must consider the person's individual nutritional needs - ability to tolerate the offending food, caloric needs, and other factors.  Strict adherence to an elimination diet and careful avoidance of the food allergen may, in some cases, hasten the disappearance of the food allergy.  Most life-threatening allergic reactions to foods occur when eating away from the home.  It is important to explain your situation and needs clearly to your host or food server.  If necessay, ask to speak with the chef or manager.

Allergenic Ingredients and Your Food Safety System
Due to these sensitivities, it is critically important to know your ingredients, address it within your food safety system (i.e., HACCP plan etc.) and provide accurate labeling on the products you produce.  Labeling is the primary method for manufacturers to alert consumers that their products contain or may contain allergens.  Correct labeling on food products is crucial.  Incorrect labeling can lead to consumer health issues (even death) and is the main cause of allergen-related product recalls.  Consumers with food allergies rely heavily on information contained on food labels to avoid food allergens.  Labels should use names that are commonly understood and not obsucre to consumers.  For example, "milk proteins" is more generally understood than "caseinate" by consumers.  Some steps to consider are:

  • Evaluate your labels to verify that they correctly list all of the ingredients, including allergens
  • Check regularly during packaging to ensure that the correct label is used

FSIS supports practices that promote accurate informative product labeling, including volluntary statements on labels that alert people who have sensitivites or intolerances to the presence of specific ingredients.  For example, a phrase such as "Contains: milk, wheat gluten, soy" has been accepted by the Agency on labeling immediately following the ingredients statement.  Additionaly, further clarification of the source of a specific ingredient in a parenthetical statement in the ingredients statement on labeling (e.g., "whey (from milk) is encouraged as a means of informing consumers who may be alerted to a more recognizable term.

Each year, FSIS and FDA receive reports from consumers who have experienced and adverse reaction following exposure to a food allergen.  Thus the reason we see recalls due to allergen-related ingredients.  Frequently, these reactions occur either because product labeling does not inform the consumer of the presence of the allergenic ingredient in the food or because of the cross-contact of a food with an allergenic substance not intended as an ingredient of the food during processing and preparation.

Since the publication of FSIS Notice 45-05 in 2005, many establishments have reviewed and revised their formulations to exclude the eight major food allergen ingredients as well as other ingredients idtentified by FSIS.  Irregardless of your food safety inspection (i.e., federal, state, retail exempt, custom exempt), if your establishment did not remove these ingredients from product formulations, you should address them immediately.

A variety of recalls occur each year based on an allergen issue.  Whether a product contains an undeclared allergen or an employee inadvertently packaged a product with an incorrect label, the end result is still the same...RECALL; and it could be devastating for your business.

An Allergen Control Plan Protects Consumers and Your Company
When a food safety issue due to mishandling of allgerenic ingredients occurs, everyone in the food processing industry suffers.  Consumers depend on you to provide safe products.  The following are some issues to think about within your food safety system:

  1. Have you reviewed your formulations and/or spice packs for inclusion of those ingredients?
  2. Have you identified the specific products that utilize these ingredients in the formulation?
  3. Have you addressed allergen ingredients in your HACCP plan/food safety system?
  4. Are other products produced on the same day as product that contains these allergen-related ingredients?
  5. Does proper sanitation occur to prevent cross-contamination?
  6. Is the sanitation document properly maintained to mitigate any potential recall?
  7. Are your products properly labeled with correct ingredient statements?
  8. Are your allergen ingredients labeled with commonly understood terminology?

Another point to think about is production scheduling.  The best way to control allergens within a plant during production is by using dedicated equipment and production lines for specific allergenic products.  Obviously, this is not a practical option for most independent meat processors.  Another way to achieve this is by stragegic scheduling of product runs.  Products that do not contain allergenic ingredients should run first; products containing allergenic ingredients should run last.  In the case of products containing multiple allergens, the products containing the most allergens should be run last, followed by intensive cleaning.

Rework (production carry-over) that contains allergenic ingredients should be reworked only into products that contain the same allergen.  For example, sausage emulsion containing a milk protein binder should only be reworked into other sausage containing milk protein.  All rework sould be labeled with recipe name and production date so it can be easily identified and tracked through the process.

When developing new processed meat recipes or reformulating existing ones, consider whether an allergenic ingredient is essential to the product.  When possible, try to replace it with a non-allergenic ingredient.  This will elliminate production and scheduling issues and minimize the risk of allergen contamination.  Make sure that when a product formulation is changed, the ingredient listing and the production schedule are changed accordingly.

Very small amounts of allergens can cause severe reactions.  For this reason, a thorough sanitation procedure should be performed.  Things to consider when doing allergen cleaning:

  • Some equipment may need to be dismantled and manually cleaned to ensure all parts are free of allergen residue.
  • Cleaning equipment when changing from an allergen-containing product to non-allergen containing products (when production schedule requires) is crucial and should be followed by a thorough visual inspection; all parts of the equipment should be accessible to confirmthat is is free of contamination.
  • Utensils and containers (e.g. scoops, pails, bins), if not dedicated to specific allergen products, should be thoroughly cleaned between allergen containing and non-allergen containing products.

As processors, do everything you can to avoid issues as they related to food allergens within your establishment.

Edited by Jay B Wenther