Are you a health care worker? We’d love to hear from you. Email editor at northcarolinahealthnews.org

By Catherine Clabby

Keeping track of every particle of peanut or other potential allergens in a food production plant is not simple.

Yet it can be done, says food scientist Steve Taylor, co-director of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska, who spoke at an annual food safety forum organized by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Raleigh on Tuesday.

Success requires segregating and labeling risky ingredients, highly intentional production scheduling and meticulous cleaning of sticky foods such as peanut or almond butters off of processing equipment.

Managers must remain mindful of the probability that workers can unintentionally cause contamination, particularly since only minute amounts of allergens can trigger reactions that send some people to hospital emergency departments.

Graphic courtesy: Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, University of Nebraska

“View packaging supplies as raw materials,” Taylor said. “If you change formulations [to eliminate allergens], throw away old packaging. If you don’t, someone on the third shift is going to use it.”

The professor dug into specifics before a crowd of farmers and people in the food processing industry because of a shared need to comply with requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Passed in 2010, the federal law has spawned a series of regulations being implemented incrementally to prevent foodborne illness.

FSMA is the biggest overhaul of food regulation in some 70 years. The bill had bipartisan support when it passed Congress in 2010 and President Barack Obama signed it into law in January 2011.

That means lots of change is in the works on farmland and factory floors.

Targeting allergens

Discoveries of undeclared allergens is now the largest single reason for food recalls nationally, Taylor said, accounting for 47 percent of recalls in 2014 and outstripping those caused by E. coli or Salmonella bacteria contamination. Recalls attributed to undeclared allergens increased from 30 percent from 2009 to 2014, FDA’s Reportable Food Registry says.

That statistic is likely related to an increase in the number of people with known food allergies. The National Institutes of Health estimates that 4 percent of children and 5 percent of adults in the United States live with food allergies, a condition on the rise for unknown reasons.

About 15 percent of school children fit in the category, Taylor said.

The trouble starts when a person’s immune system reacts abnormally to some component in a food, identifying it as an invader and launching an immune attack. Symptoms can range from mild reactions, including stomach cramps and hives, to life-threatening anaphylaxis, which can hinder breathing, cause swelling of the larynx, and result in fainting from low blood pressure.

Graphic courtesy: Food Allergy Research and Resource Program, University of Nebraska

On Tuesday, Taylor cited what he calls the “Big-8” as the primary sources of allergic reactions from food, including milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybean. Since the 1990s, federal law has required that these ingredients be labelled on any processed food wrappings, a system that is usually protective of vulnerable consumers, Taylor stressed.

“The food industry gets it right 99.999 percent of the time,” Taylor said. “But when it makes a mistake, it’s a doozy.”

Under FSMA, food manufacturers must now demonstrate that they are taking specific steps to identify hazards that could produce unintended allergen contamination. To succeed, food processors should create allergen control plans, a mix of labeling and careful production scheduling, among many other things, and remain vigilant about enforcing them.

The requirements can affect farmers, he stressed, because food producers must show that their suppliers have taken steps to prevent contamination too.

Potential delay?

State Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler, who hosted Tuesday’s event, revealed that the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture is asking that the FDA delay implementation of some aspects of the rule affecting produce growers, beyond a request made earlier this year.

North Carolina Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler convened farmers from around the state this week for an annual food safety conference. Photo credit: Rose Hoban.

Some vital components are not yet finished, he said, including rules regarding water, dispute resolution and explicit definitions of “egregious” violations.

“Some people out there will say ‘We don’t need them at all.’ I don’t agree with that,” Troxler stressed.

Preventive regulation under the FSMA could expand trust of food produced in the United States across this country and abroad, as well as prevent disease, Troxler said.

Tuesday’s programming focused on multiple other ways that farmers and others in this state’s massive agricultural sector can get up to speed on FSMA.

Chuck Ross, Vermont’s former agriculture secretary, noted that both his state and North Carolina are among 43 states recently awarded $30.9 million to help FDA implement the FSMA produce rules. He implored farmers to take advantage of training under development in both places.

“Learn everything you can before you invest in anything to make sure your investment is well guided,” Ross said.

Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, promoted video trainings. Working with the state, North Carolina A&T State University and N.C. State University, his association is using that medium to help farmers adapt to new FDA rules regarding management of water, fertilizers, hygiene and equipment sanitation, now expected to be fully implemented by 2020.

Clint Stevenson, an assistant professor of food science education at N.C. State, brought a little virtual reality into the Exposition Center at the N.C. State fairgrounds. His research team is using the technology to help food producers to “walk” into a milking barn or a food cooler while learning about how to comply with new FDA rules.

If anyone wanted to volunteer their land or facility for such training, Stevenson stressed, they would be most welcome.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Catherine Clabby

Catherine Clabby (senior environmental reporter) is a writer and editor. A former senior editor at American Scientist magazine, Clabby won multiple awards reporting on science, medicine and higher education...