Controlling allergens and contamination on food packaging machinery

Gary Kestenbaum in Food Safety on June 09, 2015

Food packaging equipment professionals are best positioned to safely and effectively design, configure or specify food packaging equipment when they understand the risks of “allergens and contamination” on packaged food safety. Equipment engineers and stakeholders are well advised to collaborate with food safety and quality managers in the quest to control hazards and provide safe products to consumers.


There is an abundance of literature in the public domain relating to the subjects of allergens, contaminants and cross-contamination. Allergens have the potential to trigger abnormally vigorous immune system reactions in hypersensitive individuals and those with compromised immune systems. They, and others who fall into specific risk profiles, may encounter serious harm when exposed to substances which evoke severe bodily reactions such as anaphylaxis, which can lead to serious injury or death if not treated quickly and effectively.      


Categories and types of allergens (comestible and non-comestible materials, foods and ingredients) are contained and described within various lists and schedules depending upon the entity or agency responsible for compiling same. The FDA publishes allergen-related information and guidance on its website. The links below represent examples of guidance found on the FDA website:

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 (click here to read the FDA’s Q&A on FALCA) applies to all foods whose labeling is regulated by FDA, both domestic and imported. Allergen and sensitive ingredient lists compiled by other organizations or agencies may include items and substances demonstrated or suspected to have historically caused reactions in or to humans.


While the list of allergens is somewhat limited, the term “contaminant” in relation to food, packaged or otherwise, can have broad interpretation. A contaminant in the context of packaged or mechanically handled food may be defined as a substance, component, item or material that is not wanted, expected, specified or typically and necessarily occurring within the product and process.  Contaminants may or may not affect the safety, salability, suitability, merchantability and quality of food products. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all members of any supply chain to fully understand types and risk levels of contamination. Contamination may occur from components in foods and ingredients or can be introduced into the packaged food anywhere along the manufacturing and supply chain. Allergens may be considered contaminants when they are unexpected, unlabeled or not suitably controlled.


Cross-contamination is the occurrence or reasonable expectation for occurrence of contamination due to (mis) handling, use, environment, ineffective sanitation, shared equipment and changeover or unsuitable equipment or process design.  Practically speaking, users of comestible ingredients and food contact packaging materials are applying current best practices when they consider equipment used to convert or process multiple products as affirmatively cross-contaminated in the absence of a written plan and certification to assure freedom from such contamination. Naturally, in order to create and apply an effective changeover and sanitation program, the equipment hardware must have been designed to be fully and effectively cleansed of all traces of components from prior production and be capable of being contacted with safe, approved and effective sanitizing agents.


Food ingredient, process and packaging scientists and engineers are responsible for specifying, testing, acquiring and creating safe food systems for release to consumers.  It is difficult, if not impossible, for those functions, as well as quality professionals, to insure the delivery of safe products to consumers if the processing, handing and packaging equipment is not designed, configured, maintained and sanitized to effectively control contaminants and allergens.


Food safety training is critical


Food professionals undergo HACCP and other food safety-related training, which is likely to enhance their awareness of risks, mitigations and related best practices. Many of the same food safety-related precepts applying to food product and package developers are also relevant to those who design, sell, purchase, configure, install, use, clean, sanitize and approve food and food-related handling and packaging equipment. Persons involved in the design, purchase and integration of food processing, handling and packaging equipment are well advised to take a food safety program training course sponsored or presented by an appropriate, accredited organization.  These courses include and discuss generalities of equipment, sanitation, use, allergens, contamination, documentation and related food safety content intended to inform participants of industry standards, risks, expectations, controls and mitigations.     


Multiple accredited and experienced organizations maintain and supply safe and suitable equipment design and handling information to equipment designers, manufacturers, converters, sellers and purchasers of food handing and packaging-related equipment.


  • Large, sophisticated users of processing and packaging equipment maintain internal design standards which they provide to potential suppliers.


  • Independent, accredited organizations and foundations such as NSF International, 3A-SSI, European Hygienic Equipment Design Group (EHEDG) and others are equipped to assess usage situations and patterns, and to determine basic and special needs relating to design standards, expectations, current good manufacturing practices in each industry and best practices as defined in state-of-the-art food safety programs. 


Next: Important self-help checklist questions to pursue in advance of design, purchase and factory acceptance testing (FAT).

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