Health matters require the guidance of qualified health professionals. The purpose of this article is to set forth general information pertaining to kashrus designations and how they might relate to allergens. Persons whose health might be affected by allergens should seek the advice of qualified health professionals.
Have you ever seen a product label with the word “pareve” appearing on the front, and a “may contain traces of milk” statement under the ingredient panel on the back? This outward and superficial inconsistency has generated much confusion among kosher consumers. Kosher certifying agencies are regularly contacted by concerned consumers, who understand that they have a responsibility to regularly read product labels, about possible mislabeling of dairy products as pareve. However, the two claims, pareve and “may contain traces of milk” are not inconsistent at all. The statement adjacent to the ingredient panel is known as an allergen disclaimer, which has no bearing as to whether a product is halachically considered milichig or pareve.
Allergens are substances that can be potential catalysts of undesirable reactions by an immune system in individuals that are hypersensitive to that substance. Often, food allergy sufferers are extraordinarily sensitive to specific foods that can cause an adverse reaction by their immune system. The presence or “traces” of these substances can have a negative effect when present in a product, even in proportions of parts per million. Manufacturing and/or label companies routinely place allergen disclaimers on a product label out of fear of legal action. The negative effects of exposing a hypersensitive person to an allergen can be catastrophic, and sometimes even fatal. Food companies are very likely to be subject to possible litigation in the event that someone becomes sick or harmed from consuming their product.
Some very common food allergens include, but are not limited to, eggs, milk, nuts, seafood, and wheat. Manufacturing plants usually have very rigorous requirements, or “special allergen cleanups”, after producing products containing allergens, before the manufacturing of non-allergen containing products may begin.
The FDA has established Good Manufacturing Practices (aka “GMP”) that provide general guidelines for food preparation, processing, packaging, storage and distribution, to ensure wholesomeness of food sold in the U.S. These guidelines extend to allergens as well. The FDA has clearly stated that allergen disclaimers appearing on product labels are not a substitute for following GMP, but nevertheless stipulate that claims of this nature must be truthful and not misleading.
If a food manufacturer has reason to suspect that cross-contamination from an allergen has occurred in a food, they will make a declaration on the production label. If they believe that not to be the case, they typically will not, although some manufacturers may still prefer to err on the side of caution. Companies usually assess the presence of allergens from cross-contamination by swabbing production equipment and analyzing the swabs in a laboratory. Many food manufacturers will establish what is known as an “allergen management program” based on those test results and what seems to successfully deal with allergens on a practical level at their facility. In some instances, food manufacturers may choose to hire an independent organization to conduct allergen audits and make these assessments.
It is very common in the preparation of food that equipment is shared between allergens and non-allergens. When common cooking vessels are used for non-kosher and kosher productions, cooking equipment must first undergo a rigorous kashering before producing kosher. Even before kashering begins, multiple cleaning procedures are routinely performed to remove all reside from the prior production, with potential allergen concerns eliminated after the kashering concludes. However, an overly cautious company may still choose to place a disclaimer on the product because of a non-kosher allergen, like seafood, for additional protection against any legal liability. .
There are other instances where this kind of situation, equipment shared between allergens and non-allergens, may occur. For example, a dairy and pareve cereal may share a common packing line that simply bags and boxes cereal. Nevertheless, the company may feel compelled to place an allergen disclaimer on the cereal box because of possible, miniscule dairy residues that might remain even after some sort of cleaning. Moreover, the same company might even have dedicated equipment for dairy and pareve products, but will still place a disclaimer on the box because of airborne dairy dust that may travel throughout the plant! In either of these two scenarios, the product may be 100% pareve, but there still might be room for concern for allergens.
Packing equipment, for example, does not involve and cooking or heat and therefore does not require kashering from milichigs to pareve. However, extensive buildup of residue from dairy products could potentially affect the status of non-dairy products packaged on the same equipment afterwards. However, if the equipment is cleaned properly to remove any unwanted dairy residue before a pareve product is exposed to the equipment, there is no kashrus issue. The mishna in Terumos states that vessels, which are used to contain teruma, may be also used to store chullin provided that the vessel is cleaned adequately from teruma beforehand. The mishna defines an acceptable cleaning as what is typically done to properly clean a vessel from non-teruma, which is know as kederech haminakrim. The standard practice of cleaning a container from any food is considered sufficient to render it clean, even from teruma, and an overly excessive cleansing of the vessel is not necessary . In practical terms, if machinery is used at ambient temperatures and shared between dairy and pareve products, a standard cleaning to reduce unwanted dairy residue to minuscule, insignificant proportions is sufficient to consider non-dairy products handled by the same machinery as pareve. However, this will very likely not eliminate an allergen concern.
Since allergens are a hypersensitive area, literally, label disclaimers indicating the possibility of cross-contamination from allergens (e.g.-“may contain traces of milk”, “made on equipment that also handles nuts and dairy”, “processed on equipment that also processes shellfish and other seafood” etc.) typically have no bearing on a food’s kosher or pareve status. Consumers should understand that because of this reality, kashrus agencies do not take responsibility to assess whether allergens are an issue at a manufacturing facility. If a consumer is concerned with the possibility of allergens in a product, those questions or inquiries should be addressed directly to the label company. The label company is the one best equipped and prepared to deal with these consumer inquiries and is usually more than happy to provide any needed guidance.