Baker has to scramble when key ingredient changes

NEW YORK (AP) — When Pam Nicholas saw the updated packaging for cocoa used in her allergen-free baked goods, alarms went off. Sure enough, the cocoa was processed in a new plant where nuts and other highly-allergenic ingredients were used.

That sent the owner of Izzi B's Allergen-Free Bakery on an expensive and time-consuming four-month scramble for cocoa that was both yummy and safe for her customers.

The cakes, cupcakes, pies and cookies from the Norwalk, Conn., bakery must be free of nuts, wheat, gluten, eggs, dairy products and soy. Ingredients can't be made in plants where they might be contaminated by even a trace of allergens.

When Nicholas saw in August the cocoa was packaged differently, she called the manufacturer to ask about its processing. She found out it was processed in a new plant, but employees were reluctant to give her any other information. So she spent $700 to send the cocoa from the new plant to a testing company. The results came back in 48 hours: There were traces of nuts, gluten, milk, egg white and soy. Nicholas' next step was to go online and buy every package she could find that was processed in the old plant to be sure she had cocoa on hand.

"It was costly, but I couldn't find something to replace it that quickly," she says.

The holiday season was approaching and she uses cocoa in most of her products, like her chocolate chili spice cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies and cake pops.

Nicholas spent months scouring the Internet, making phone calls, sending emails. She waited for samples to arrive, frustrated because shipments were delayed during a busier-than-expected holiday season for delivery companies. The search cost Nicholas more than $1,700 and took her away from some aspects of running her business, including following up on requests for pricing and other information for potential customers.

"That doesn't make me look so good," Nicholas says.

Finally, in December, Nicholas found the right cocoa. She ordered 100 pounds, more than three times the usual amount she typically orders, to be sure she was well stocked. The good news: It was cheaper than the old cocoa.

It wasn't a moment too soon. Izzi B's was down to its last two pounds.

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Follow Joyce Rosenberg at www.twitter.com/JoyceMRosenberg

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