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Undeclared Allergens and Gluten in Prepackaged Salads – April 1, 2018 to March 31, 2019

Food allergen - Targeted surveys

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Summary

Targeted surveys provide information on potential food hazards and enhance the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's (CFIA's) routine monitoring programs. These surveys provide evidence regarding the safety of the food supply, identify potential emerging hazards, and contribute new information and data to food categories where it may be limited or non-existent.   We use them to focus surveillance on potential areas of higher risk. Surveys can also help identify trends and provide information about how industry complies with Canadian regulations.

Food allergies can affect people of all ages but are particularly common in children. Food allergens can represent a serious or life threatening health risk for allergic individuals. Additionally, although it is not considered an allergen, undeclared gluten may contribute to chronic health issues for those individuals with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Allergens and gluten can be found in food due to their presence in the raw ingredients or they can be accidentally introduced along the food production chain due to cross contamination. Regardless of the source of the allergens, industry must ensure that the food produced is safe for human consumption, either by complying with specific Canadian regulations where applicable or by keeping the levels as low as reasonably possible.

The main objective of this survey was to obtain baseline information regarding the presence and levels of undeclared allergens and gluten in prepackaged salad products. Of the 260 samples tested, 2 were found to contain undeclared allergens, specifically egg and sesame.

Both positive results were forwarded to the CFIA's Office of Food Safety and Recall (OFSR) to determine if the levels found would pose a health concern to allergic individuals. The extent of the follow-up actions taken by the CFIA is based on the level of the contamination and the resulting health concern as determined by a health risk assessment. None of the products with positive results were identified as health risks and recalled.

What are targeted surveys

Targeted surveys are used by the CFIA to focus its surveillance activities on areas of higher health risk. The information gained from these surveys provides support for the allocation and prioritization of the Agency's activities to areas of greater concern. Targeted surveys are a valuable tool for generating information on certain hazards in foods, identifying and characterizing new and emerging hazards, informing trend analysis, prompting and refining health risk assessments, highlighting potential contamination issues, as well as assessing and promoting compliance with Canadian regulations.

Food safety is a shared responsibility. The CFIA works with federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments and provides regulatory oversight of the food industry to promote safe handling of foods throughout the food production chain. The food industry and retail sectors in Canada are responsible for the food they produce and sell, while individual consumers are responsible for the safe handling of the food they have in their possession.

Why did we conduct this survey

Approximately 7% of Canadians have self-reported as having at least 1 food allergy, but the actual number of medically confirmed food allergies is expected to be slightly lowerFootnote 1. It is believed that the rate of food allergies is increasing, particularly among children. Food allergies are estimated to affect up to 5% of adults and up to 8% of children in developed countriesFootnote 2. Food allergens are food proteins that can cause a reaction of the body's immune system, and can represent a serious or life threatening health risk for allergic individuals, or contribute to chronic health issues for those with pre-existing health conditions like celiac disease. Celiac disease is a chronic reaction where the body reacts to a component of gluten which can damage or destroy certain intestinal cells. Approximately 1% of the total population are affected with celiac diseaseFootnote 3.

The priority food allergens are the 10 most common food allergens that are associated with severe allergic or allergy-like reactions in Canada. These allergens consist of peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, seafood (fish, shellfish and crustaceans), eggs, milk, soy, mustard, sulphites, and wheatFootnote 4. Gluten, while not a true allergen, is a family of proteins found in certain grains like wheat, rye, barley, kamut, and spelt and is included in this listFootnote 5. Gluten can cause digestive problems and other issues for people with certain health conditions such as celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. This makes proper identification and labeling of allergens in food by the manufacturer essential.

Undeclared allergens can be found in foods due to their presence in the raw ingredients, or can be accidentally introduced along the food production chain through cross contamination. Regardless of the source of the allergens, industry must ensure that the food they produce is safe for human consumption. This can be achieved by complying with specific Canadian regulations where applicable, or by keeping the levels as low as reasonably possible.

This was the first survey conducted by the CFIA for undeclared allergens and gluten in prepackaged salad products. The main objective of this survey was to obtain baseline information regarding the presence and levels of undeclared allergens including egg, sesame, soy, peanut, almond, hazelnut, gluten, and the milk proteins casein and BLG in prepackaged salad products.

All products were tested "as sold," meaning that they were not prepared as per the manufacturer's instructions or as they would typically be consumed.

What did we sample

All products were sampled between April 2018 and March 2019. Samples were collected from local and regional grocery stores located in 6 major cities across Canada. These cities encompassed 4 geographical areas: Atlantic (Halifax), Quebec (Montreal), Ontario (Toronto, Ottawa) and the West (Vancouver, Calgary). The number of samples collected from these cities was in proportion to the relative population of the respective areas.

The following products were not included in the survey:

A total of 260 prepared salads were sampled. This includes 47 domestic products, 172 imported products and 41 products with unspecified origin, meaning samples' country of origin could not be determined from the product label or available sample information.

How were samples analyzed and assessed

Samples were analyzed by an ISO/IEC 17025 accredited food testing laboratory under contract with the Government of Canada. The samples were tested as sold, meaning that the product was tested as-is and not as prepared according to package instructions.

In Canada, food allergens and gluten must be declared in the list of ingredients if they are present in the prepackaged product in order to comply with the requirements of the Food and Drug Regulations Section B.01.010.1. A prepackaged product will be deemed non-compliant if any level of undeclared allergens and gluten is detected.

Health Canada considers that gluten-free foods, prepared under good manufacturing practices, which contain levels of gluten not exceeding 20 parts per million (ppm) (due to cross contamination) meet the intent of the Food and Drug Regulations Section B.24.018 for a gluten-free claim.

What were the survey results

Over 99% of all prepackaged salad products sampled in this survey did not contain any detectable levels of allergens. 2 samples were positive for undeclared allergens. A single sample of chicken salad was found to contain 1.1 ppm undeclared egg, while 0.5 ppm undeclared sesame was found in 1 pasta salad.

What do the survey results mean

Of the 260 samples tested in this survey, over 99% did not contain any detectable levels of allergens and gluten, while 2 samples were found to contain egg or sesame.

Egg

A single product in this survey tested positive for undeclared egg. Low levels of egg in the product could be a result of cross-contact of mislabeled or contaminated raw ingredientFootnote 6. Inadequate cleaning of shared processing and/or packaging equipment between each run could also introduce low level allergen to the final productFootnote 7.

Sesame

Undeclared sesame was found in 1 prepackaged salad product. Sesame seeds have long been used in the food industry to produce of sesame oils, salad dressing, bakery products, etc. Edible oils and salad dressing are widely used in pre-packaged salad. Cross-contamination from processing and handling on the shared production line may be the reason of low level of sesame in the tested salad productFootnote 7.

The extent of the follow-up actions taken by the CFIA is based on the level of contamination and the resulting health concern as determined by a health risk assessment. Appropriate follow-up actions include additional sample testing, facility inspection and product recall. The health risk assessment is based on exposure to the allergens and gluten through consumption. The exposure is calculated by using the typical serving sizes for each food. Assessment based on serving size means not all detectable levels of undeclared allergens and gluten in food will cause a reaction in an allergic individual.

Both positive results were forwarded to the OFSR for follow-up and were determined not to pose a risk to consumers.  As a result, no recalls were made based on the results of this survey. No published literature could be found on a similar topic for results comparison.

This survey generated new information on the background level of undeclared allergens and gluten in prepackaged salad products collected from 6 cities across Canada. Information gathered in this survey, in conjunction with other data including the Canadian Total Diet Study and Statistics Canada's Canadian Health Measures Survey food consumption data, are critical in assessing the health risk that our food supply poses to Canadian consumers.  The results of the CFIA's surveillance activities are also used to inform the Canadian public and stakeholders by raising consumer awareness and help build public confidence in their food supply by removing non-compliant products.

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