When you start a discussion about food safety, the first thing many people think of is food-borne illnesses. Keeping consumers safe from pathogens that can pass from humans into the food supply because of lax food safety practices is certainly a concern. However, keeping consumers safe also requires ensuring that they have the information they need to make smart choices for themselves, especially when it comes to allergies.

Allergen testing is a critical part of any food safety manager’s job, and it has only become more stringent in recent years. Following are five things you might not know about allergen testing, testing requirements, and how to ensure that your facility is doing the best that it can to prevent allergic reactions from consumers.

There Are No International Allergen Testing Standards

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration has issued memoranda that indicate what steps facilities should take to minimize the risk of allergens contaminating food. One of these documents was the 1996 Allergy Warning Letter that addresses good manufacturing practices with regards to allergens, and which will be discussed further down in this post. However, at the international level there are no allergen laws or requirements in place. This is dangerous for consumers that travel to other countries as well as those that consume important food items. Indeed, even the FDA requirements are somewhat vague, which means that facilities must take it upon themselves to be vigilant in addressing the issue.

Cleaning Shared Equipment is Essential

The reality of the food manufacturing process is such that many pieces of equipment and facilities are used for multiple product lines. Cross contamination for potential allergens, such as dairy, soy, and nuts, is a very real possibility in these situations. For this reason, food safety managers must place emphasis on using best practices to clean machinery. Each piece of equipment will have different specifications for cleaning, so it is important that proper procedures are taught and followed in every facility.

ELISAs are the Preferred Testing Method

While cleaning is essential, it is not enough to assume that all allergens have been eliminated through cleaning. Allergen testing between products is the best way to minimize the risk of cross contamination. An enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) test is the FDA’s preferred allergen testing method. According to the agency, ELISA testing is “ relatively simple and sufficiently sensitive to ensure that products with no detectable allergen residue by ELISA are safe for food-allergic consumers.”

Warning Labels are Not Good Enough

Any consumer that has recently purchased packaged food is likely familiar with common allergen labeling. 

This type of labeling is precautionary and used in the cases where a food item is manufactured on the same equipment as known allergens, even if it does not have those allergens as an ingredient. However, the FDA has stated that this labeling does not replace good manufacturing practices, which includes thorough cleaning of equipment between uses for different products. With proper cleaning and testing, this type of precautionary labeling, which ultimately gives consumers with allergies fewer choices, should not be necessary.

The concern over allergens is not going to subside anytime soon. It is important that facilities learn that allergen labeling is not sufficient. It is better that food manufacturing facilities maintain best practices and a rigorous testing protocol to keep consumers safe from potential allergens, while still allowing them to choose from among a wide spectrum of products.