As we look back over the past several months, we see that allergens continue to upset the meat industry. Within the last year, there were dozens of recalls of meat products for the presence of undeclared allergens. When asked to comment about this trend at a recent food safety conference (the numbers of recalls have been increasing annually), USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety Al Almanza simply shook his head, questioning why all these recalls are happening — because “avoiding undeclared allergens is a simple fix.”
Nearly three years ago, USDA warned the meat industry that it would begin intensifying its focus on allergen control. This is because allergens are increasingly posing a significant health concern to the consuming public. According to USDA, as many as 4 in 100 children are now affected by some type of allergies. And, in many of these cases, the allergic reactions they suffer can be very serious. The food ingredients which cause the vast majority of allergic reactions include milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.
USDA announced its initiatives to curb the levels of undeclared allergens in meat products because of a general lack of awareness in the meat processing industry about the public health risk associated with allergens. And, as USDA ramped up its enforcement efforts, the number of recalls has steadily increased. In 2008, there were only seven recalls of FSIS regulated products for undeclared allergens. In 2013, the year of USDA’s announcement, there were 20. And, as noted, USDA regulated products were recalled over 50 times last year for the presence of undeclared allergens.
Fortunately, to help processors better address allergen control, USDA has announced the availability of updated compliance guidelines for controlling hazards posed by allergens and other ingredients of public health concern. The updates reinforce USDA’s suggestion that establishments consider the risks posed by allergens as part of their hazard analysis, and control those hazards through the use of CCPs, sanitation SOPs and prerequisite programs. The updated guidelines also clarify the distinctions between Certificates of Analysis (COAs) and Letters of Guarantee (LOGs), and add a listing of allergenic ingredients (and corresponding foods that may contain those ingredients), as a resource for industry.
As we come to the conclusion of 2016, let’s work to reverse the trend of recalls announced for the presence of undeclared allergens. Resolve to critique your operations and processes, to reduce to the greatest extent possible a problem that, we would all agree, has a “simple fix.” Resolve to pay more attention to allergens in your facilities and, I promise, in the coming year, USDA will pay less attention to you.