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Page last updated at 16:59 GMT, Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The peanut detectives

Kinnerton Confectionery
One factory, two very separate zones: Kinnerton's production plant

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

A man accused of sabotaging a food factory by scattering it with peanuts has walked free after charges against him were dropped. But the case highlights the threat this humble ingredient poses for those in the industry.

Pick up a random product from a supermarket shelf and there is a reasonable chance it will display the warning "May contain nuts".

Some consumer groups say the label is over-used and unnecessary, undermining more valid warnings and designed to cover the backs of the manufacturers.

But food producers disagree, arguing it is irresponsible not to warn people who may have extreme reactions.

Peanut or tree nut allergies have almost tripled over the past decade, with one in 50 children in the UK now afflicted, according to The Anaphylaxis Campaign. In 2007, five people died from anaphylactic shock caused by an adverse reaction to food, the latest official figures for England and Wales show.

Paul Bentley
Charges against Paul Bentley were dropped, leaving him to walk free

Nowhere is the humble peanut more feared than in the food industry, as highlighted in the case of engineer Paul Bentley.

Mr Bentley, 42, of Nottingham, had been accused of scattering peanuts around a food factory where he was an employee, after being disciplined. The factory had to be closed and cleaned at a cost of £1.2m. The accused denied the charges and after the jury failed to reach a verdict Mr Bentley was acquitted.

The emphasis some food producers apply to peanut allergies is revealed by companies such as Kinnerton Confectionery, in Norfolk, which go to extraordinary lengths to keep their production lines free of nut traces.

Kinnerton, which employs 700 people, has a nut safety promise mark on the front of every pack and runs a military-like regime.

For the past 10 years it has been running two parallel production lines, separated by a nut segregation wall that cuts through the middle of its factory.

"We take it enormously seriously," says managing director Clive Beecham. "We spent a million quid 10 years ago on separating the factory which was a massive undertaking."

He started the regime after being harangued by a child's mother about a Teletubbies chocolate bar which carried a "may contain traces of nuts" warning on the wrapper.

Clive Beecham
One part per million is almost impossible to damage anybody but if there is one part, you are not nut-free
Clive Beecham

"She said as manufacturers of products aimed at children, how could we justify making products in a potentially lethal environment… she was right."

Today, the separation between the two sides of the plant is so rigorous, engineers carry separate, colour-coded tools for the nut zone and non-nut zone. Operatives work as peanut detectives, testing all goods coming into the plant for peanuts, hazelnuts and almonds. Products are protein and DNA tested and anyone moving from one side to the other has to change their shoes, trousers, coat and hat.

All clothes are washed separately and colour coded; yellow for the nut area and white for the non-nut side.

Air is controlled to flow from the nut-free zone to the "dirty" nut zone, backed up with environmental swabbing and testing.

Everything is duplicated in the interests of keeping the tiniest trace of nuts out of the nut-free zone. There are separate kitchens, warehouses, first aid rooms, changing rooms, engineering shops, mixing rooms, preparation areas and packing lines.

One in million

Moulds and trays are also separated and all products audited and batch tested "at considerable cost".

How can they be sure the measures are working? The science of allergen detection has become so advanced, says Mr Beecham, a laboratory can now identify one part in a million.

"If I invite you to the factory, I don't know if you went to a pub last night and ate a peanut, you may have residue of peanut dust which may find its way on to you. One part per million is almost impossible to damage anybody but if there is one part, you are not nut-free, so we can't use that guarantee.

Contains nuts label
Many products simply warn off those with nut allergies
Such measures don't come cheap. The cost of keeping the two zones separate is about £1m a year.

Manufacturers like Kinnerton are not alone. The UK's biggest chocolate factory Cadbury in Bournville, Birmingham says it adopts a lot of the same practices.

The company, which employs 2,500 people and makes three billion items a year, seals off certain production lines away from nuts.

But a spokesman says it is "logistically impossible" to isolate all its non-nut brands because it "would have to build an entire new factory". So its products carry the warning "may contain traces of nut".

There are still gaps in our understanding of peanut allergies - a point highlighted by a recent trial in which children with the allergy were cured after gradually building up their tolerance. A longer-term study is now needed.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has also recommended changing official guidance that pregnant women and children under three should avoid peanuts. It followed a study in Israel - where nearly all babies are weaned on a peanut paste - which found that less than two in 1,000 children have a peanut allergy.

Yet for foreseeable future, sweet makers such as Kinnerton must continue to run two parallel production lines if they are to be sure of keeping their products nut-free.

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