No day is a good day for bad news but it has often been said that a Friday afternoon is the most likely time a food manufacturer will get the first official notification of a product contamination. The number of food product recalls in North America, Europe, and Australasia have been growing for years. From 2015 to 2017, plastic and rubber contamination events increased recalls by at least one-and-a-half times. The most frequently reported recalls for plastic and rubber contamination are the food sectors that use higher levels of mechanical methods, such as poultry and red meat processing, cereals and bakery, and confectionary.
Various plastics can be the culprits. The plastic contaminants identified in 2016 and 2017 recall notifications include: pieces of a polycarbonate chocolate mold, pieces of a margarine blender, plastic packaging, PET fibers 1-2 centimeters, blue safety goggles, pieces of pen, sharp white plastic lollipop sticks, plastic hairpin, harvested field rubbish, body of an inspection torch, a poultry meat machine scraper blade, a blue hygiene glove, and cheese-forming mold. Plus, multiple mystery pieces of black, red, yellow, blue, green, white, and clear plastics.
What’s on the Line
The cost of a recall can be split into several parts. The value of the product, cost of advising the trade and public, shipping and reimbursing of cost and trading loss to the wholesalers and retailers, and the costs and penalties from public and civil litigation can be significant.
The biggest cost of all if a consumer finds plastic in their food is the loss of the company’s reputation as a trusted producer of safe product. Losing the trust of consumers is evident in the drop of sales after a recall. The size of that decline and, more importantly, the time it takes to recover trust depends on the speed, openness, and extent of a company’s response.
An international confectionary company recently received a complaint that a small piece of red plastic was found in one of its products. At stake was the reputation of a multibillion dollar business. Excellent traceability meant that it was a no-brainer for the confectionary company to identify all the batches of product at-risk and it rapidly initiated a massive international voluntary recall. This assured consumers that the products remaining on the shelves were safe to eat. It also probably added more to the company’s reputation of trustworthiness than was lost when the recall was first announced.
But where did the plastic come from? How did it get into the production line? The company pieced together many plastic materials to identify the source equipment and implemented actions to prevent it from happening again. But would this be enough? Food processing companies and their suppliers now use enormous amounts of plastics in their machines, tools, and in packaging materials. As plastic usage in food processing grows, so does the frequency of contamination.
Making Plastic Safe
Metal detectors have reduced incidents of metal contamination in food since they were first used by Mars in the U.K. over 50 years ago, but many ordinary plastics cannot be identified by metal detectors or X-ray inspection systems. Fortunately, modern detectable plastics are made from food-safe materials, which include fine metals that trigger metal detectors and additional materials that raise the density levels of the plastic to make it visible to X-ray inspection systems.
The levels of additives must achieve detectability without detracting from the performance of the parts or equipment made from the plastic. Care must also be taken to ensure the correct level of detectability is produced throughout the material. Detectamet, for example, uses a patented system to help ensure the traceable elements are evenly present throughout the whole molded product. This allows for greater potential in detectability when the smallest broken pieces pass through the detection systems.Detectability is also governed by other factors, such as the nature of the contaminated product, line speed and orientation, and the settings of the inspection machines. In principle, if the target metals are detectable at a significant size then detectable plastics will also be identified and rejected. It is good practice for food producers to test detectable materials by deliberately placing them in their products and using their metal detection or X-ray inspection systems to detect.
Metal or plastic pieces that contaminate can be of various sizes. All detectable plastic products, in whole or part, are detectable, but like metals there is a minimum size that the material cannot be identified, even with correctly configured metal and X-ray inspection systems. In fact, the latest consultation document from BRC Global Standards (Issue 8) proposes, “Pens used in open product areas shall be controlled to minimize risk of physical contamination (e.g. designed without small parts and detectable by foreign body detection equipment).”
There is no 100 percent guarantee of zero risk, but the smallest undetectable pieces are likely to be under the threshold of threat to the consumer.
There are many variations between inspection machines, products, and packaging, making it essential for users of detectable plastic materials and equipment to carry out their own tests on site to validate the detectability of the products and reduce the risks of contaminated product.
An audit of the plastic tools and materials used in processing areas can identify the extent of the risks, tools, and materials that need to be replaced by detectable alternatives. There are many detectable versions of standard tools available today. Tailormade designs can also be produced. Examples include a recently developed detectable plastic pig for cleaning food and beverage pipelines, and a detectable tray and lid system designed for specific processing needs, which is now offered for general sale.
These products satisfy the need for detectability in metal and X-ray inspection systems, but don’t forget that the designs must also perform as well as the standard plastic products they replace.
Color coding detectable plastic helps restrict use of tools to specific areas or shifts to heighten the level of control of microbial cross-contamination. More users of detectable tools are specifying that a unique identity is engraved on their products to improve security and provide a means of tracing the origin of mislaid tools.
For food manufacturers that are supplying private or own label products, the power of the buyer to dictate the food safety standards becomes a key stimulus of plastic management. Several retailers and food service companies have their own set of standards, such as the U.K.’s biggest retailer Tesco and Walmart in the U.S. that demand certification by third-party auditors who adhere to standards set by the Global Food Safety Initiative.
Blunden is the marketing and communications consultant at Detectamet Ltd. Reach him at email@example.com.