The possibility that a consumer could die after eating a humble chocolate bar sounds far-fetched. But this nightmare scenario is a growing reality for all kinds of food manufacturers as consumers around the world become increasingly allergic to certain foods and anaphylactic shock becomes more common. Patrick McGuigan found out more.

In areas such as the US, Northern Europe and Australia, nuts, particularly peanuts, are probably the highest-profile allergens, presenting manufacturers with a wide range of issues with which to contend. These include labelling requirements, process and packaging practices, and product recall strategies. What's more, these matters are becoming more urgent as the media and consumer lobby groups voice their concerns ever more loudly.

1% of US citizens allergic to nuts

There's no doubt that nut allergies are on the rise. In the US, some three million Americans, or one per cent of the population, have nut allergies, while in the UK, they affect one in 70 children. It's a similar story in Australia. Consequently, food manufacturers in these countries are relatively conscientious when it comes to labelling products that contain nut ingredients. 'May contain traces of peanuts' is also a common warning on products, which may not contain peanuts as a full ingredient, but are made on the same production line as other peanut-containing products.

However, processing mistakes and labelling mix-ups still occur. In the event of a product going onto the market which contains peanuts or peanut traces that are not labelled, manufacturers can face serious consequences. According to Kathryn Cooper, VP market development and client services at the Guelph Food Technology Centre in Canada, a recall made by a large multinational in Canada will cost in the region of C$1.5-4m(US$1.07-2.84m).

"But this just accounts for the cost of recalling products, the lost sales and the time spent resolving the problem. It's much harder to calculate the cost to a brand's reputation and, while a company's product is off the shelf, competitors are quick to take their market share, which can take a long time to reclaim." Cooper adds that for companies operating in much larger markets, like the US or Europe, these costs could be ten times higher.

Vital to have a crisis management plan

So, recalls are definitely best avoided, but if they do happen it helps to have a swift and efficient system in place. "Companies should have a complete recall plan, which is tested every six months," says Cooper. "You need a good consumer complaint system - someone who is qualified to take calls, review complaints and collect as much information as possible. You need to know who is responsible for which area. The purchasing manager should know where the products went; the production manager must know how much was produced and when; there should be someone calling, faxing and e-mailing customers, finding out how much has been sold and telling them what they should do with the rest. A list of media contacts needs to be ready, perhaps with a press release already drafted."

In the US, Ben & Jerry's, now part of Unilever, recently recalled a whole day's production of its Karamel Sutra ice cream because it may have contained undeclared nuts. Some 85,000 pint-tubs, distributed throughout the US, had to be recalled. The company also received one illness complaint, which wasn't life threatening. Understandably, Ben & Jerry's was loath to go into details, but a spokesman said: "We undertake quality checks very frequently and all our ice creams are individually coded, so it was easy to track where and when the products were distributed. We then had to pull them from store shelves and have them destroyed."

Nut allergies not a huge issue in some countries

While nut allergies get a lot of media coverage in the US, Australia and the UK, this is not the case elsewhere - maybe because nut allergy rates are lower due to different diets.

At Dupont D'Isigny in France, which makes hard-boiled candies and chocolate dragees with peanuts, a spokesperson says that it is not something that seems to concern French consumer groups and the media: "It's less important in France; it is not so topical. We still label our products that contain peanuts, and we still clean down thoroughly after processing with nuts, but consumers aren't all looking at the labels."

Kinnerton invested in nut-free production area

In the UK, one chocolate company took the issue of peanut allergies so seriously that it invested £1m (US$1.60m) in completely separating the production area for nut-containing products from those that are nut-free. Kinnerton, which makes a range of children's products, decided to make this unprecedented move after complaints from customers.

"This was a moral decision made by the company's owner Clive Beecham, after he received a call from the mother of children with nut allergies. She told him that as the manufacturer of products to children he had an obligation to make sure they were safe," says marketing director Rachel Greice. "It wasn't done as a marketing ploy. I think this woman just pulled at his heart strings."

With no shareholders to answer to, Beecham could take such a decision, even though there is little return to be gained from such an investment. To create the nut-free zone a wall was built down the middle of the factory and the warehouse, and all the production lines had to be moved. Hundreds of thousands of pounds have been invested in buying new dedicated equipment, such as separate mould washers, cartoning machines and air conditioning systems.

The people working on the nut production lines now dress in yellow uniforms and those working on the nut-free lines in white. Engineers also have two different sets of tools - red for nuts and green for nut-free.

Larger companies unlikely to follow Kinnerton's lead

When it comes to large competitors, such as Cadbury, Mars and Nestlé, Greice acknowledges that there is little chance that they will follow Kinnerton's lead. "They would have to spend many more millions than we did changing their factories and there isn't really any financial benefit in doing it," she says. "Shareholders wouldn't allow it."

But at the pressure group The Anaphylaxis Campaign, food advisor Hazel Gowland argues that manufacturers don't necessarily have to make sweeping changes to improve their performance on allergens. "Kinnerton is one end of the spectrum, but it isn't black and white. There are grey areas in between where manufacturers could make significant improvements," she says. "For example, if you don't use nuts in your factory and you have traced your ingredients back as best you can, don't put a 'may contain' warning on your product. There is also always more scope for segregation and better clean downs in factories."

Gowland adds that retailers could look at ways of farming out their contracts, so that products which don't contain nuts are made by companies that aren't making nut-containing products at the same time.

Companies could work harder to avoid cross contamination

Cadbury is one company that has been criticised by The Anaphylaxis Campaign in recent months, after nuts have consistently turned up in products that do not list them as ingredients. "They make Dairy Milk on the Wholenut line and then stick a 'may contain' warning on the pack. But this is not keeping to the principle we would like to see, which is manufacturers doing everything they can to ensure there is no cross contamination. We want to see clearly legible ingredients and contamination information, which represent the real status of the product."

According to Gowland, manufacturers are so keen to put 'may contain' warnings on their products, even where there are no peanut traces, that many young consumers with allergies are choosing to ignore them. "It's getting to the stage where if companies don't start tightening up, we might have to take legal action," she warns.