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Updated 07 October 2015

Nuts and food manufacturing safety

Nut allergies are potentially life-threatening food allergies and it's crucial for food manufacturers to have an effective allergen control programme in place. Learn more here.

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Food & Allergy Consulting & Testing Services (FACTS), a Cape Town-based company that specialises in research on food allergies, food labelling and food safety and acts as consultant to the South African food industry, has the following advice:

Which nuts are regulated in South Africa?

According to the South African Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act, 1972 (Act 54 of 1972) - Regulations Relating to the Labelling and Advertising of Foodstuffs, (R. 146 of 1 March 2010) both peanuts and tree nuts are classified as distinct allergens within the group of the eight legislated ‘common allergens’. Tree nuts are further classified as the following: almonds, brazil nuts, cashew nuts, hazel nuts, macadamia nuts, pecan nuts, pistachio nuts and walnuts. Tree nuts do not include butternut, pine nut, coconut and palm nut.

What is the severity of peanut and tree nut allergy?

Traditionally peanut allergy has always been considered the most “dangerous” food allergy. However, tree nuts can cause a wide spectrum of allergic reactions, which may be equally or even more severe than allergies to peanuts. The prevalence of cashew nut allergy has increased in recent years. In a UK study, cashew nut allergic children showed a higher rate of anaphylaxis (severe life-threatening reaction) when consuming cashew nuts than with peanuts. The rate of severe reactions to cashew nut within the group was 73%; whereas 31% of the children reacted to peanuts.

Are tree nut allergic individuals sensitive to all the nuts?

Tree nut allergic individuals can be allergic to one or more, or all of the tree nuts. Even those with a peanut allergy may also react to some tree nuts.

The misuse of blanket statements such as “made in a factory that uses nuts” has been one of the reasons for the inclusion of regulations in South Africa for the use of precautionary statements. As this type of statement has been used on so many products, all peanut and tree nut allergic individuals would either avoid purchasing and consuming these products as they may react to minute amounts of nuts, or would begin to ignore such statements if they consumed such products and did not react.

The irresponsible use of such statements therefore not only limits the selection of food products that nut-allergic individuals can consume, but may also lead to increased risk-taking and possible fatal allergic reactions.

How does one manage tree nuts and peanuts in a food manufacturing facility?

Given the high potential for cross-contamination in a nut processing environment, food manufacturers handling peanuts and tree nuts require an allergen control programme to ensure that all allergens in a specific finished product are declared on the label. The controls applicable for managing all common allergens are also applicable to the management of peanuts and tree nuts, and include effective procedures for designation, segregation, sanitation and labelling. It is important to control each type of nut separately as these can have different allergenic proteins and individuals can be allergic to different nuts (as discussed above).

An important distinction that needs to be made for peanuts and tree nuts compared to the control of other common allergens is that these are often handled in the whole or particulate form in the manufacturing environment. Therefore, if contamination with peanuts or tree nuts were to occur, this may very well involve a whole or piece of nut rather than a trace of allergenic residue. Since the nut fragments would not likely be evenly dispersed through the "cross contacted" product, an individual consuming such a product could encounter a much higher level of allergenic protein in a smaller portion of the final product, with a greater chance of a fatal reaction.

The particulate nature of peanuts and tree nuts also needs to be taken into account when sampling for allergen testing. Swabbing, for instance, may not be the best method of testing for the presence of particulate pieces of nut. Since in-line verification methods may not always pick up whole pieces of nut, inspection of production lines and processing areas after cleaning is crucial to ensure that all particulates are removed. A preferred option for nut testing would be to analyse a thoroughly homogenised portion of the next product (not intended to contain peanuts or tree nuts) for the presence of these nuts using suitable testing methods.

These points should be considered in the allergen control programme of food manufacturers to ensure that contamination is reduced and that due diligence in all parts of the manufacturing environment can be shown.

FACTS laboratory analyses for the presence of all of the tree nuts listed in the regulations: almonds, brazil nuts, cashew nuts, hazel nuts, macadamia nuts, pecan nuts, pistachio nuts and walnuts.

For more information visit the website of Food & Allergy Consulting & Testing Services (FACTS); send an email to info@factssa.com or phone 021 551-2993.


Read more:

Nut allergy alert
Peanut allergy: avoid these foods
Peanut allergy update

 
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