Despite — or perhaps because of — awareness of allergen-related recalls, the issue remains a problem for the food industry, and some are looking for new solutions to help retailers.
In the fourth quarter of 2013, undeclared allergens accounted for about 42% of the FDA’s 134 recalls, the single largest cause for food recalls, according to an analysis by ExpertRECALL.
Already this year, Fairway Market  has recalled grilling sauce with undeclared anchovies, Whole Foods Market  recalled soup due to undeclared milk, Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage  recalled dark chocolate almonds over undeclared peanuts, and Winn-Dixie Stores  recalled instant chocolate drink mix for potential undeclared milk. Since many products go through several steps before they reach grocery shelves, there are many places in that process where the item could be mislabeled or an ingredient left off an allergen warning.
“So it’s not that companies are becoming more careless but that the issue is becoming more complex. The process of food manufacturing is more efficient but the flip side is that one small misstep with a labeling machine or one faulty link in an international supply chain can lead to a massive recall,” said Kevin Pollack, VP of recalls at ExpertRECALL.
On the other hand, Gale Prince, founder of SAGE Food Safety Consultants, thinks inexperienced small manufacturers present the biggest challenge for supermarkets, especially as retailers look for local products.
“For example, in one of the big recalls involving a small company they forgot to list wheat on their ingredients statement. Well most bakery foods are made with flour, wheat flour. Simple things like that,” said Prince, who has over 40 years of industry experience and is known as the “dean of product recalls.”
“So along those avenues as retailers search out this, what should I say, artisan-type operations, they need to review very carefully the labels that are being presented with those group of products.”
In response to members’ needs and customers’ concerns, Food Marketing Institute ’s food protection committee has named allergens a key issue for 2014 and will work to help educate retailers on this issue.
“And so to move past just putting up a sign in the prepared foods department saying that they have allergens in the department and really just try to make some advances into controlling allergens and giving their customers more information about what products have the allergens and moving beyond, ‘We use nuts in our bakery,’ and trying to help the customers make more informed decisions,” said Hillary Thesmar, FMI’s VP of food safety programs.
'Room for improvement'
FMI plans to create an allergen guidance document in partnership with the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska that will take learnings from the manufacturing industry and apply them to a retail setting as well as address the issues that are of most concern to members.
Allergen-related recalls may be part of the guidance document if FMI members indicate on a survey out now that they want to learn more on that topic.
“So there’s a lot of room for improvement and a lot of opportunities that we can learn from other industries and apply that at the retail level. But we want to do things that are practical and applicable at retail,” said Thesmar.
Roger Hancock, president and CEO of Recall InfoLink, suggests three important areas for retailers to focus on when it comes to preventing allergen-related recalls of their own products.
“Well I guess to start with, make sure your labels are accurate. Then if they are, whenever you change suppliers review your labels, make sure they’re still accurate. And consider using kind of general guidance statements to make sure that you’re protecting your shoppers,” said Hancock, who previously served as Supervalu’s head of food safety.
Although the number of allergen-related recalls dropped somewhat in the fourth quarter of 2013 compared to previous quarters, experts expect it to remain an issue for some time.
“With an increased awareness and public concern about food allergens, it’s not a problem we see tapering off in the near term,” said Pollack.
Read more: SN's dedicated Food Safety page 
However, some think the awareness could be a positive thing for the food industry.
“They’re taking seriously the need to properly declare, to comply and to protect the public. And so I think it’s a good trend. I mean, it’s an unfortunate trend because recalls cost money and that kind of stuff. But I think that businesses are deciding to do the right thing for the right reasons and I think that’s positive however that happens,” said Hancock.
Those retailers and suppliers who get it right when it comes to allergens can inspire a loyal following with consumers.
“One of the key areas for consumers that have that allergen person in their household, every time they shop they have to read the entire ingredient statement to make sure that the product has not changed ingredients. But these individuals become very brand loyal on who they can trust. And so they will go back and purchase the same item over and over again,” said Prince.
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