Eight foods -- milk, egg, wheat, peanut, soy, tree nuts, fish and shellfish -- cause 90 percent of all food allergy reactions, according to the Food Allergy Network. Up to five percent of children have food allergies, and even one half a peanut can cause a fatal reaction. Severely milk-allergic children can even have a reaction if milk is simply splashed on their skin. While the actual allergic population has not significantly increased and allergies generally dissipate by adulthood, improved testing capabilities have allowed better classification of previously unexplained illnesses.

Allergen-safe food production is a developing trend among processors. However, extensive amounts of GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) training, process design and sanitation go into producing allergen-safe foods. "Isolated personnel flow, supplies, product storage and ingredient control are critical control points to preventing cross-contamination," notes Tracy Bridgeman, technical services manager at Austin Packaging Co. (APC, Austin, MN). "Positive-pressure HEPA-filtered air is another key preventing contamination."

APC recently completed a 7,500 sq.-ft. allergen-controlled processing and packaging room, dedicated to producing specialty products. It is one of only a handful of such contractible facilities. Allergen control capabilities at APC include milk and soy proteins, and peanut residues. APC's allergen room is currently processing and packaging proprietary USDA-inspected meal kits and other products, although almost any product requiring allergen-safe labeling could be produced.

Bridgeman notes that allergen ingredients such as peanut sauce are stored independently and under lock and key to further prevent possibilities of error. "And there are only two keys to the ingredient storage lockers in the plant, both held by management," she says.

Allergen control training included specialized GMPs, customized videos with real-life examples of allergen-affected children and exacting SOPs (standard operating procedures). While allergen-control processing does not necessarily differ from normal processing, GMPs and SOPs go beyond normalcy and focus on specific practices to prevent contamination. A stringent HACCP plan was also implemented for this process.