Food Allergens: What You Need to Know Now
People contact us every day with questions like: “Is your facility peanut and tree nut free?” or “Can you explain your gluten-free claim?” At Stahlbush, we have strict programs in place to ensure that our foods are safe. In the 1980s, we built our business by supplying ingredients to the baby food industry. Baby food has the strictest food safety requirements. Today, we have a robust program as a consequence. Providing safe, high quality food is the most important thing that we do at Stahlbush Island Farms. We adhere to very rigorous food safety standards, and all employees are trained on them every year.
If you or your loved ones suffer from food allergies, our entire line of frozen fruits and vegetables can become part of your daily menu.
There is a lot of information about food allergens from the perspective of consumers and health professionals. As we dove deeper into the issue, we noticed a real lack of information from the companies that are actually producing food. Today, we want assurances that proper allergen control programs are in place to prevent cross contamination.
Why should I ask about cross contamination?
Cross contamination, in this context, is when a residue or trace amount of an allergen is unintentionally incorporated into another food that is not intended to contain it. Manufacturers may voluntarily add phrases like, “product may contain” or “made in a facility that also uses” to indicate to the consumer that there is a chance that the product has been cross contaminated with an allergen. However, this information is not a requirement, meaning that it won’t always be present on food labels.
Why is “product may contain” or “made in a facility that also uses” not required on food packages?
For people that suffer from severe allergies, it may seem ludicrous to not require manufacturers to disclose this information. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a good reason! The FDA established a system to ensure that products are consistently produced according to quality standards. This system is called Good Manufacturing Practices or GMPs. Every food processing company is required to have their own GMPs in place that comply with the FDA regulation. The FDA does not want advisory statements like “made in a facility that also uses” and “product may contain” to be used instead of adhering to current GMPs. This is to protect you!
What response/assurances do I need to ensure there is no cross contamination?
If you have severe allergies, the best approach is to contact the company and ask about their allergen control programs. If allergens are present in the facility, what is the protocol? How do they avoid cross contamination? At Stahlbush for instance, we do occasionally process barley, farro, rye and wheat. Wheat is one of the Big-8 allergens in the USA. Since it is considered to be high risk in the US, as part of our GMPs, a complete cleaning including a protein swab is conducted after each run of an allergen (in this case wheat) to prevent any cross-contamination.
What are the allergens that must be labeled in the USA?
In the United States, the FDA estimates that 2 percent of adults suffer from food allergies. When a person has a food allergy and consumes an allergen, within a few minutes to two hours symptoms will emerge ranging from (but not limited to) hives, vomiting, difficulty breathing or anaphylaxis. There is no cure for food allergies. Most food allergies can be traced back to a list that is commonly referred to as the Big-8 in the United States. These foods are: milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans. Since these foods are considered high risk, the FDA requires that food manufacturers label any food product sold in the US that contains the Big-8. However, people with severe allergies often need more assurances than what’s on the label. Remember in some cases, allergies can be life threatening!
Wheat is a grass that is widely cultivated for its grain, which is a staple in most foods. Many foods contain wheat from pasta, cakes and breads to unsuspecting foods like ketchup, beer and soy sauce. A wheat allergy causes an adverse reaction to proteins found in wheat. A wheat allergy is different than celiac disease. Celiac disease causes an abnormal reaction to one protein in particular, gluten. Gluten is a protein that naturally occurs in wheat, rye and barley. According to the FDA, 3 million Americans suffer from celiac disease. At Stahlbush, we have added the gluten-free statement to all of our products. At the farm, we do occasionally process barley, farro, rye and wheat. However, a complete cleaning, including a protein swab, is conducted after each run of any items containing gluten to remove any trace or cross-contamination. The FDA defines gluten-free as containing less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
There are two main proteins in cow’s milk that can cause an allergic reaction. When milk curdles, the solid parts are called casein, which is one of these proteins. The other protein is whey, which is the liquid part remaining after milk curdles. Most people that react to cow’s milk will also react to sheep, goat and buffalo milk. On food labels, it is common to see the ingredient listed as whey (milk).
An allergy to eggs is most common among children. Most children will actually outgrow this allergy by adolescence. When reading an ingredient label avoid any food that has: eggs, egg whites, dried egg or albumin.
An allergy to fish can be life-threatening. Read labels carefully and avoid fish or fish products of any kind. Common fish include: cod, herring, halibut, mackerel, trout and salmon.
Most people assume that allergies to shellfish and fish are the same thing. They are not. Within the shellfish category, crustacean reactions tend to be the most severe. Crustaceans are defined as crab, lobster and shrimp. Mollusks on the other hand tend to be tolerated. These reactions are not commonly life-threatening. Mollusks are defined as clams, mussels, oysters and scallops.
The most common causes of anaphylaxis in the United States are attributed to peanuts and tree nuts. Allergies to tree nuts are often confused with peanuts. One of the reasons for the confusion is that a single tree nut allergy is more likely to present itself if a person has an allergy to peanuts. The most common tree nuts are: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios and walnuts.
A peanut is a legume, not a tree nut. It is a common ingredient in candy, cereal and baked goods, like cookies and pies. Peanut allergies can be severe. For this reason, some manufacturers will voluntarily add to labels “product may contain” or “made in a facility that uses.” However, it’s important to note that this information is not a requirement.
Soy is a legume that is a popular ingredient in processed foods and infant formulas. Soy can be found in common ingredients like soy milk and soy sauce to canned broths, canned tuna, processed meats and even energy bars. Soy allergies rarely cause a severe reaction like anaphylaxis. People with soy allergies should avoid consuming: edamame, miso, tempeh and tofu.
For any food manufacturer, providing safe, high quality food is of the utmost importance. When in doubt, contact the manufacturer directly and ask the questions that we outlined. For any additional questions or topics that we didn’t cover in this article, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.