Allergen cross-contamination occurs when an allergenic protein is introduced into a food product that is not normally expected to contain that allergen. Cross-contamination can occur not only from poor manufacturing practices, but also from poor personnel practices.
Under the South African Foodstuffs, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act (54 of 1972), Regulations Governing General Hygiene Requirements for Food Premises, The Transport of Food and Related Matters, R638, the duties of a food handler comprise a number of important practices, including ensuring that their hands and clothing are clean. This involves – but is not limited to – the washing and cleaning of the hands in an effective manner to prevent contamination of any sort (including allergen contamination).
Cleaning is considered to be the first line of defence against allergen cross-contamination, and should be carried out in such a way that it is both effective and efficient. But cleaning practices that are satisfactory for hygiene purposes may not be sufficient for the removal of allergens from an individual’s hands.
It must be borne in mind that unlike in microbiological contamination, allergenic materials are proteins, and are insoluble in water. They are generally unaffected by the addition of heat or chemicals, and so will not be removed with just water or by rubbing hands with alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Not only will this not remove the allergen; potentially, it can even distribute or spread the allergenic protein over the surface of the hands.
Validating whether your routine cleaning and hand-washing procedure is effective in the removal of allergens is therefore of great importance. Allergen control validation entails proving that a control programme is effective – for example, hand-washing validation. It often involves submitting hand swabs to a reputable and accredited laboratory. The methods used (generally ELISA and PCR) are very sensitive, and can detect allergen residues in a large range of complex sample matrices. Certain swabs used on site, such as ATP swabs, are not suitable for validating whether allergen residue is removed, as they do not directly target the allergenic proteins.
Personnel practice controls should be included in the Allergen Control Plan. These are not restricted to hand-washing procedures, but are also used for PPE control. Allergen contamination due to food handlers may not be solely due to allergens on site, but could also be due to food products consumed during break times. Therefore, it can be very difficult to determine how best to go about validating a hand-washing procedure.
Choosing the most suitable testing method to validate your hand-washing might seem daunting, but FACTS can assist with determining the best possible solution and provide you with the necessary resources to perform the validation study. For more information on this or allergen controls, please contact [email protected].
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