Undeclared allergens in a global ingredient supply chain

August 03, 2017

These days, simply eating a meal is like taking a journey around the world, whether you realize it or not. Thanks to increasingly interlocked global trade, there might be ingredients in your food from another hemisphere.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, between 10% and 15% of all food consumed in the U.S. is imported — including 80% of seafood in the country. Spices are also among the most imported food items.

While this increased globalization benefits both the food industry and consumers, it also creates a challenge for food producers trying to keep detailed tabs on their food ingredient supply chain. Imported ingredients can be tricky to manage, as they go through a long itinerary before reaching their food product destination. Some food products have up to 16 links on their supply chain.

“Businesses are losing a lot of control and visibility into their quality systems,” Kelly Kuchinski of Sparta Systems said of globalization in an article. “Most can do one step forward or one back, but after that they lose sight of it.”

This made it hard to find the root of the problem in 2015, when undeclared allergens in imported ingredients caused a vexing wave of recalls in the U.S. and Canada. Traces of peanut and almond were found in a wide range of products containing cumin — possibly put there in a case of economically motivated food fraud — leading to one of the biggest allergen recalls of all time.

The implicated cumin batch was eventually traced down the food supply chain to two suppliers in Turkey. Though these companies were the link between the cumin and other countries, contamination could have occurred in whichever country the cumin was grown in, or somewhere between the farm and the suppliers themselves.

When the Turkish suppliers sold the batch of cumin to companies in North America, the potentially contaminated product spread to spice mixes, taco kits, seasoned meats and other products far and wide. Many of these North American companies in turn acted as suppliers for other companies, adding more steps for investigators to examine.

Similar issues with cumin and other spices have occurred in the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and other European countries, highlighting the necessity for those at the top of the food supply chain to communicate with suppliers and use only those that they trust. Traceability is key, but can be hard to attain in this day and age.

“The spice chain is long and complex,” Steve Taylor, co-founder of the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska, told Allergic Living. “It can be very difficult to trace back further than one or two levels.”

Neogen offers an extensive line of allergen testing products. Click here for more information. Neogen also offers Recall Support Services for companies facing a recall — or the possibility of a recall. For more information, click here.

Category: Food Safety