Food and beverage producers have so much to consider when it comes to adding a new product line to their portfolios, but for those weighing an investment in plant-based beverages, one factor looms especially large: Allergens.
Up to two percent of adults and between 5–8% of children have a food allergy, and for many of those people, exposure to even trace amounts can trigger a dangerous reaction. This leaves producers with some important choices to make around the risks posed by allergens — including ingredients such as soy, nuts and oats, among many others — and how to make consumers aware of those risks.
Anders Löfgren, a plant-based technology specialist at Tetra Pak, said it’s important to remember that “zero risk” simply isn’t possible when allergens are involved. But with the proper equipment and best practices, producers can effectively manage risk.
“We tell producers who are concerned about allergens that it can be complicated, but we are here to support you,” Löfgren said. “We’ll work closely with you to help you understand the risks and develop ways to work through them.”
For dairy producers who want to expand into plant-based beverages, the best way to minimize cross-contamination is to add an entirely separate processing line. Löfgren said that may not be an option for many producers because of the large upfront investment required, so they must turn to other risk-management practices such as enhanced cleaning routines and labelling. Producers should also include allergens as a special part of their Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plans.
Careful cleaning is important in any food production facility, but hygiene takes on added importance when handling allergenic ingredients. Small particles can work their way into areas that are difficult to clean, such as corners or pumps and valves.
Along with designing equipment to avoid areas where particles could get stuck, Löfgren said Tetra Pak helps customers assess potential problem areas and develop best practices for removing allergens from their production environments. The standard procedure involves flushing the system with water, followed by alkaline detergents. Adding in oxidizing agents can make the detergents more effective, and it’s important to remember that cleaning solutions should not be reused to avoid carrying over allergens from one product to another.
Even with a comprehensive cleaning program, Löfgren warns there are no guarantees. “Normally you’ll take a small sample and test it for allergens, but you can never know for sure without testing the entire volume, which is unrealistic, and there are no established thresholds,” he said. “That’s where clear labelling comes in.”
Milk and other products that contain allergenic ingredients — or were produced in facilities where such ingredients are present — generally must be labelled by the manufacturer to comply with consumer safety regulations.
This can be tricky, though, since labelling requirements often differ between countries. In the EU, for example, foods that contain less than 20 mg of gluten per kilogram can be labelled “gluten-free,” while in the US, there is no lower-level limit — products must be 100% gluten-free to be labelled as such.
“It’s always the responsibility of the manufacturer to make sure their products are labelled correctly,” Löfgren said. “Producers can take different approaches. On one end you will see examples where all possible allergens are listed while others try to minimize the risk to the point where they can leave it off the label.”
Löfgren said Tetra Pak is here to help customers get the equipment and processing solutions they need and provide recommendations for enhanced cleaning and other best practices. In the end, though, it’s up to each producer to assess the risks they’re taking on. That means finding the balance between investment and food safety.
“A single ‘this is how you do it’ solution doesn’t exist,” Löfgren said. “Every situation is different. You have to decide what is the acceptable level of risk for your product and your brand.”