The Big Eight Gets a New Member: Sesame

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With sesame listed as the ninth major allergen and a requirement for food companies to implement best practices and labeling to warn consumers, here is some guidance as we move toward the Jan. 1, 2023, adoption date.

April 4, 2022

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What do hamburger buns, bagels, hummus and granola all have in common? They contain some form of sesame — the ninth most common food allergy in the country and now part of The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) list of major allergens, requiring labeling and quality assurance processes.

“Sesame is a global flavor used in a lot of different cuisines, and people may not be aware of the ways sesame can find its way into their favorite foods,” said Emily Kaufman, president, Emport, which sells allergen testing kits for food manufacturers.

From oil to paste, seeds and spice ingredients, sesame is prevalent. Consider some fast-food hamburger buns and other bakery items such as bagels. “People might think, OK, I have a little tahini as dressing in my sandwich, and they don’t realize it contains sesame,” said Thomas Grace, co-CEO of Bia Diagnostics, a food testing laboratory in Vermont, adding that in some parts of the world, sesame is not labeled at all on packaging.

“Sesame is a global flavor used in a lot of different cuisines, and people may not be aware of the ways sesame can find its way into their favorite foods.” — Emily Kaufman, president, Emport

From cereals like muesli to chips — tortilla, bagel, pita — crackers, breadcrumbs and Asian cuisine, sesame is a lot more mainstream than some might realize. And it provokes adverse events, along with major allergens that get more publicity such as milk, egg and peanut. But following the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education & Research (FASTER) Act of 2021, sesame now must be labeled on all packaged foods, and companies must comply by Jan. 1, 2023.

“What’s reassuring for manufacturers is that the rules are not being changed with the FASTER Act,” Kaufman said. “They’re just being applied to an additional allergen, and we know that sesame is an allergen that impacts lots of families.”

How widespread is sesame allergy, and what impact does product packaging have on affected individuals’ health? A study published in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in December 2021 set out to find answers.

The study identified allergic reactions associated with oral exposure to sesame and the role of product labeling. After monitoring 360 clinical reactions in 327 individuals, 68.9% had an anaphylactic reaction, 47.8% were hospitalized and 36.4% were given epinephrine. Proper product labeling was a culprit, with packaged food products responsible for 67.5% of the allergic reactions and only 43% labeled with “sesame.” The remaining products were labeled with an alternative name, mostly tahini. Ultimately, findings from the study support updating the major allergen list to include sesame and improving systems for reporting adverse events related to sesame-containing foods.

With the FASTER Act of 2021, “manufacturers have to be more vigilant about labeling,” Grace said, relating that final, non-sesame products should not contain a detectable quantity of the ingredient, which is defined as 2 parts per million.

“They need to step up their game in ingredient allergen management,” said Luke Emerson-Mason, laboratory director at Bia Diagnostics. “Even if it’s wheat flour or products that are transported with sesame products, they need to verify that suppliers are separating ingredients and verify cleans between runs.”

Sesame’s newfound presence on the list of major allergens doesn’t mean manufacturers have to reinvent the wheel. But food companies that use sesame ingredients while producing non-sesame products will need to take a deeper dive, since it takes on many forms.

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Follow Form and Function

The first step to managing sesame cross- contamination is to identify the form of sesame used, Kaufman said.

“Very small seeds could get lodged into equipment and come loose at a later time when a different non-sesame product is being run — and how are you going to make sure that is not happening?” she said.

Size, shape and constitution of the allergen all play into preventing accidental cross-contamination.

“Are you working with sesame oil or sesame paste?” Kaufman asked. “Consider the ways the allergen might get left behind and what you are doing already to manage other allergens you’re working with.”

Scour Over the Steps

Identify every step required to produce foods that could be exposed to sesame and consider all the what-ifs.

“Manufacturers might not think to check the scoops, buckets and utensils and make sure secondary and auxiliary equipment is cleaned in between runs,” Grace said.

Think about how the ingredient is transported across the factory floor, too.

“If there is a dusting of sesame in the air that can fall on your sesame-free flour, you need to know that,” he said. “Be aware of how you move product from place to place. Make sure there is no residual contamination that could possibly get into your products.”

Grace pointed out a real-world case that also could occur when producing sesame and non-sesame products in the same facility.

“We’ve seen things like people having vats where they were processing a food and didn’t clean it out completely, and then some of the residue contaminated the whole next batch,” he said.

Vet Vendors

Managing how sesame is handled to avoid cross-contamination includes understanding suppliers’ best practices.

“How are they taking responsibility for this allergen?” Kaufman said. “If they are working with sesame on a day-to-day basis, the expectation is that they should be doing a high volume of testing and separation, and that they have controls in place. Manufacturers might decide to do a level of internal verification of incoming ingredients.”

As for testing, there are established methods for identifying sesame in products, including lateral flow kits, sending samples to third-party labs for Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) testing and more.

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Prevent Packaging Pitfalls

Labeling is a chief concern, and manufacturers are required to identify sesame and/or include precautionary statements on labels before the calendar year turns.

“‘If you’re making sesame and non-sesame buns, there is a potential for cross-contamination, and some advocates are reticent about manufacturers using ‘may contain’ labelling as it doesn’t give consumers enough information,” Emerson-Mason said.

Kaufman recommended that facilities producing products where sesame is present update all packaging this year and destroy archived packaging that could accidentally get pulled from a shelf.

“It’s not backup,” she said. “You can’t use it in a pinch if your next container of cartons is delayed. It has to be destroyed, recycled, whatever you can do with it.”

For products that should not include sesame and require precautionary labels — the same rule applies.

“If you make a determination that, despite all of your good manufacturing practices, you cannot guarantee the absence of sesame in a product, that calls for a ‘may contain’ statement and any packaging that does not contain that should be destroyed,” Kaufman said.

If there is 100% confidence and proof that products do not contain sesame, no packaging changes are required.

“But if a company is making a claim that their product is free from The Big Eight (allergens) or anything in that vein, it’s important to remember that eight is not the number come January,” Kaufman said.

Train the Team

Educate your workforce that The Big Eight just won a new member to the allergen club, and now best practices must include sesame.

“Make sure employees are trained to understand that sesame is an allergen and requires its own treatment,” Emerson-Mason said.

With a stop-gap allergen management plan, thorough training and frequent testing, food companies can help consumers protect themselves. Doing their part to identify cross-contamination possibilities and properly label products is a public health measure.

The author is a frequent contributor to Quality Assurance & Food Safety magazine.