Bakers Journal

Features Health and Safety Technical
Allergens in Focus


December 3, 2007
By Brian Hinton

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Brian Hinton brings us part two on the topic of allergens and baking.

95Having discussed risk management of allergens during production in my previous article, the focus now shifts to sales and marketing.

I look at sales and see the bakery products after baking being packed into containers or onto trays for the display cases. It is essential for the same degree of allergen integrity to be maintained with separation of high-risk products whilst also ensuring good sanitizing practices are continued.

Customer pressure to know what each product contains has forced bakeries to come up with an allergen policy, and you may be responding one customer at a time. But, sooner or later the staff needs to speak with one voice, and it has to come directly from the management. You cannot hide behind a statement of total denial, or that you have no control over what some of your suppliers add to the ingredients you use.

The following is an example of the sort of information you should give your sales staff so they know how to deal with allergens in the bakery:

We encourage all people who suffer from a food allergy, or think they may, to consult their doctor prior to shopping at the bakery.

A food allergy occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly diagnoses a particular food as toxic. The immune system reacts with symptoms such as sneezing, hives, diarrhea and vomiting. Occasionally, the body can go into shock.

This severe reaction, known as anaphylaxis, can, without proper medical treatment, result in death. One to two per cent of Canadians suffer from this condition, and although food is the biggest contributor, other causes, such as insect bites and latex gloves, also produce reactions.

Food sensitivities or intolerances, which are more common than allergies, are adverse reaction to foods but do not trigger the immune system.

Our policy addresses the nine most common allergies:
Peanuts – We do not use peanuts in our bakery, however some chocolate-coated products may contain peanuts.
Tree Nuts – We use these nuts in our bakery, however, cookies and certain cakes we make from scratch will be free of nuts (we need 24-hours’ notice).
Eggs – We make egg-free/dairy-free cakes. Also, our organic breads do not contain eggs.
Milk – We make egg-free/dairy-free cakes. Also, our organic breads do not contain milk.
Soy – Soy is used in the bakery as a replacement for dairy products.
Sulphites – We are working to remove this allergen from our bakery.
Wheat – Is present in the bakery. For gluten-free products, we use special pans, mixers and isolated areas in the bakery.
Sesame Seeds – Sesame seeds are present in the bakery. Because of the difficulty of containment, we cannot guarantee products are free of this seed.

As a bakery owner, I would keep this document exclusive to the staff for reference. The final referral will always be what is on the ingredient list. Using a precautionary statement on labels is, in my opinion, valid. What I disagree with is including allergens without hard evidence of their presence.

Even with an allergy policy in effect, your sales staff will still be challenged by customers to provide further information, or to agree on definitions related to allergens. Our most common statement refers to gluten. Customers will define flours such as spelt, Kamut and barley as being gluten-free. We simple ask if they have been diagnosed with Celiac disease, or whether this is from a medical doctor, and that we only recommend rice breads as being gluten-free.

A seven-year period of dealing with allergens and special dietary needs has given us some observations about customer expectations when shopping in our bakery. First, a new customer expects clear signage categorizing their specific needs – if you can link colour to this, so much the better. One large supermarket chain in England uses the colour purple in a special section for dietetic products. It certainly caught my eye.

Next, customers will read the ingredient list. We print a separate label close to the product name in large type if the label is small, followed by the nutritional table if available. In our experience, fewer than five per cent of customers understand the significance of the values, although I believe this is changing. Most customers want to see simple, basic and natural ingredients on the label. Many ingredients are added by manufacturers to aid processing at high speed, lengthen shelf life, and provide pleasurable tastes and texture. Food manufacturers also use ready prepared ingredients such as icings, toppings and fillings in their products. These come with their own list of ingredients, which we list separately. As a small bakery, it is possible to use the most basic ingredients of flour, water, salt and yeast to make perfect bread given loving care and time to bake.

Building trust starts with the way food is handled – it can give a good indication of allergy risks. Sealed packages, while not foolproof, do offer a basic level of protection. Shared display showcases raise a red flag, along with poor hygiene.

For bakery products made outside Canada, we make sure customers understand every country has its own regulations.

Extra vigilance is often needed before consumption. We provide customers who have just been diagnosed with an allergy or sensitivity with a list of our products that fit their specific needs. Taking the time during the customer’s fist visit to explain the options builds a relationship and likely a client who is one for the long term. This could be the return to more customer service not less in the food industry.

Administration of bakeries
Allergy prevention plans rest with the owners or management. Constant vigilance is required to note changes in regulations and incoming ingredients. Every time we see a new label on our ingredients, we check for changes. In Alberta, government grant programs are available for food manufacturers to implement Good Manufacturing Practices and HACCP. These can act as a starting point to the implementation of an allergy prevention plan. The challenge for bakeries in the future is how far can you go back in the process to eliminate all potential sources of contamination. Are there trace elements of allergens in commonly used ingredients? We switched from regular vinegar to apple cider vinegar, because of unknown extraction sources.

It is part of a new reality that bakers everywhere must respond to consumers’ concerns over food safety. Failure to do so only puts a business at risk.

Brian Hinton is the owner of Lakeview Bakery in Calgary. Reach him by e-mail at: lakev@telus.net.


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