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“Tree Nut” Allergy; Is It a Misnomer?

Tree Nut Allergy Is It a Misnomer

By Lisa Zitiello, EAS Consulting Group, Independent Consultant

Food safety professionals across the globe will agree that one key safety factor in food production today is the avoidance of allergen cross-contact. This is closely followed by declaring an allergen ingredient on the finished product label. These factors are essential for the protection of the trusting consumer from unintentional exposure to an ingredient that could cause them harm. Additionally, for the food processor, ensuring allergen controls and monitoring practices are in place and effective will prevent the damage of a product recall, both financially and reputationally.

In the United States, 9 recognized allergens must be declared and controlled in food processing. One of the 9 allergens listed is “Tree Nuts”. “Tree Nuts” is a grouping of several nuts borne out of the fruit of different species of trees. These include Almonds, Brazil Nuts, Cashews, Coconut, Filberts, Macadamia, Pecans, Pistachios, etc. While tree nuts contain similar problematic proteins, each tree nut is composed of unique protein components making it unique. An individual may be severely allergic to pecans, but not allergic to almonds. In the processing and handling environment, if almonds, for example, come in direct contact with a shared piece of equipment such as a chopper or conveyer belt, a robust allergen cleaning procedure must take place before a pecan can be processed there. In fact, in this example, a processor may consider using an almond lateral flow test to validate and verify their cleaning effectiveness. This verification assures that almond protein has been removed from the shared food contact surface prior to processing pecans.

The Food Allergy Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) of 2004 requires manufacturers to label packaged food products containing tree nuts—and to note what specific nuts they contain—when they are sold in the U.S. The law also applies to other key food allergens and is enforced by the FDA.

Although FALCPA also does not require manufacturers to report if a food is made on a production line that also processes tree nuts or products that contain them, many companies do so voluntarily. This type of precautionary labeling, however, is not a free pass to have a lax allergen control program. Without clear and concise understanding of tree nut allergens controls, food production may result in inadequate allergen cross-contact prevention. In our example above, a consumer who is allergic to pecans would not be safe to consume a bag of almonds without the proper allergen cleaning procedure after pecan processing.

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