Jim Dudlicek, NGA Director, Communications and External Affairs
Food allergens present a risk to more than 30 million people in the United States. Controlling food allergens in retail facilities and reducing the number of allergen-related recalls are a priority, but is the industry we doing enough?
NGA hosted a recent webinar to explore the latest on best practices for retailers, what manufacturers are doing to address recalls, and how the regulatory community is taking steps to address this concern, which if unchecked could lead to severe allergic reactions or even death.
Speakers included Jill Hollingsworth, VP of food safety and retail industry relation at Ecolab; Steve Oswald, VP of food safety and quality assurance at Wakefern Food Corp.; and Donna Garren, EVP of science and policy at the American Frozen Food Institute.
Here are some key takeaways from the discussion:
Know the basics. On Jan. 1, 2023, sesame joins the list of allergens required by the FDA to be declared on product packaging, which also includes milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soy. Undeclared allergens accounted for more than 44% of food recalls in 2021, with milk leading the pack. FDA reports several root causes of allergen-based recalls, including exclusion of allergens from labels, incorrect labels, not identifying the common name of the allergen, failure to carry forward information to the final label, and cross-contact between major allergens, such as via equipment or utensils.
Retailers play a significant role in assuring a safe food supply for consumers. Transparency is essential to building trust and confidence.
Activities to control food safety risks can be divided into four key areas, Wakefern’s Oswald explained: the supplier and source of foods and food ingredients, in-store practices and procedures, education and training of employees and food handlers, and consumer engagement. A comprehensive approach to food safety management must address each of these areas, Oswald asserted.
The four pillars of a retail allergen management program: Operations, especially food preparation; employee training; accurate labeling, for consumer transparency and regulatory requirements; and customer notification and engagement.
Have an action plan. Conduct an allergen risk assessment to minimize the risk of cross contact. Evaluate ingredients, raw materials, processing aids and finished products. Employ a spill program that immediately cleans up spills containing allergens. Have a product demonstration program to minimize cross contact and communicate allergens to customers. Be ready to make special accommodations for individuals who make specific requests. Establish a system for customers to express any product complaints or concerns. Train management and associates on the fundamentals of food allergy awareness.
Support from senior leadership is essential to ensure allocation of resources and emphasize importance of your company’s allergen management program.
Click here to view a recording of this webinar.
Ecolab offers food allergen training as part of its food safety partnership with NGA. Information about available courses can be found at www.nationalgrocers.org/m/food-safety/digital-training. Non-NGA members can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about accessing the courses.