In 2009, there were 56 separate food safety incidents recorded in the U.K. caused by contamination from foreign bodies, such as glass or metal shards, stones or bones, or fragments of plastics or rubber. This has since risen to 118 in 2013, with plastic, metal, and glass contamination in 19, 12, and 10 incidents respectively. Interestingly, of the 118 recorded incidents, 62 originated from the U.K., 35 from the European Union (EU), and 11 were imported. In the U.S., there were 10 recorded incidents of extraneous material contamination in 2013, with 331,732 pounds of food recalled. According to USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, the number of incidents significantly increased from five in 2009, however the amount of food recalled reduced from over 1 million pounds. These, combined with a number of other high-profile food scares, have had consumers in both Europe and North America increasingly worried about the safety of the products at supermarkets.
For any brand involved in a safety incident, a product recall can be costly, especially when you factor in the time and effort spent initiating the recall, communicating it to customers and consumers, then working to rebuild their reputation in the eyes of both retailers and the general public. In addition, there are damages that have to be paid to customers left out of pocket, as well as the expense of lost and wasted product. It is no surprise then that manufacturers are keen to do all they can to avoid an incident.
To continually protect consumers against substandard products, food safety legislation and standards in both the U.S. and the EU have evolved. The International Featured Standards in France, Germany, and other European economies, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standards in the U.K., and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in the U.S. are all more stringent than ever before to combat food safety hazards, safeguard consumer wellbeing, and reclaim public trust in the food supply chain. They are now becoming the blueprints for similar regulations in emerging markets, such as China, both to improve safety for local consumers and to facilitate exports to Europe and North America.
As a result of these stricter rules around the globe, food manufacturers have had to evolve their product inspection processes to ensure compliance with regulations and minimize the risk of a costly product recall. At the same time, increasing worldwide demand for food products and growing globalization of the market has meant that they have had to maintain high levels of quality control while boosting their manufacturing output and productivity.
Product inspection manufacturers have had to develop their technologies, such as X-ray inspection systems, innovating to meet these requirements from customers with ever greater sensitivity and features to balance product safety and productivity. Incorporating fully integrated automatic rejection systems, for example, into X-ray technology has enabled manufacturers to significantly increase throughput rates on their line without compromising contaminant detection. The development and inclusion of advanced data management systems in product inspection machines has also resulted in more accurate analysis and monitoring, enabling food manufacturers to not only demonstrate due diligence in the event of an incident, but to identify potential sources of contamination to minimize the risk of it happening again in the future.
Where We Stand Today
Even with the developments in legislation, food product recalls remain a significant issue for manufacturers today. The number of recalls in the U.K. and U.S., due to physical contamination has increased over the last few years. However, this is due in large part to increased awareness of food safety among consumers and retailers, as well as stricter regulations—including audits—raising the bar for food manufacturers.
The globalization of the food market has led to much longer supply chains, with raw ingredients sourced in one country, processed, and packaged in another, ready for selling in a third or even a fourth nation. This means that brand owners have to ensure that their products and their manufacturing processes comply with the regulations in place in each of the markets they are operating in. For example, if food is sourced in the U.S., processed in the U.K. and sold in France, then the manufacturer will have to meet the requirements of FSMA, the BRC Global Standards, and the IFS.
As a result, in order to comply with so many food safety standards, manufacturers have to ensure that their production lines meet more than just high hygiene standards. They also need to have in place precision product inspection processes to identify any and all instances of physical contamination on the line to minimize the risk of sub-standard packs reaching consumers. Product inspection equipment, such as advanced X-ray systems has been a real help here to manufacturers, enabling them to automate their quality control procedures to inspect all of their packs for foreign bodies. The use of high-performance X-ray technology can help manufacturers safeguard against physical contamination and reduce the risk of food safety recalls, protecting their brand reputation.
A New Generation of Technologies to Avoid Recall Threat
The new more stringent regulations in place worldwide are pressuring manufacturers to achieve ever higher standards of food safety. The industry is now turning to equipment suppliers to provide them with technologies that uphold the highest levels of product quality, while maintaining optimum line speed and efficiency.
Installing product inspection technologies on production lines in accordance with the principles of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) is a key first step in minimizing the risk of contamination. Under this protocol, rather than just inspecting products at the end of the manufacturing process, advanced inspection systems must be installed at every location on the line identified as vulnerable to contamination, known as Critical Control Points, or CCPs. Doing this can ensure that even minuscule foreign bodies are identified as early as possible, maximizing detection rates and preventing contaminants from fragmenting during processing to affect a greater number of products.
However, to keep up with burgeoning competition on the international stage, food manufacturers need to strike the right balance between product safety and line productivity, which increasingly means boosting line speeds. High throughput rates through the product inspection process can be easily achieved though by installing advanced X-ray inspection machines capable of precision contaminant detection at high speeds, as well as by automating the rejection process. Fully-integrated automatic rejection systems can ensure that all non-conforming packs can be removed without the need to stop or slow the production line, maximizing production uptime while keeping the risk of a contamination incident to a minimum.
While the inclusion of inspection systems that follow HACCP principles has helped to significantly decrease the likelihood of contamination reaching consumers, it is imperative that manufacturers are prepared for a potential food safety incident involving their product. If a recall were to occur, they need to be able to manage both the recovery of non-conforming packs from retailers and consumers, as well as any investigation by the authorities, providing proof of their due diligence.
In such an event, being fully informed about the performance of the production line and the product inspection systems is vital to maintain continuous operation and to mitigate the negative impact on brand reputation. Modern X-ray systems feature data management systems fully incorporated into the machine, capable of recording and storing data about both conforming and non-conforming products on the line. This information can allow manufacturers to demonstrate that they have taken every feasible measure to prevent contamination to investigators, and to enable them to trace the source of safety issues. Advanced systems can also be connected to a larger network, enabling manufacturers to access data from multiple inspection machines, and at the same time, further facilitating their analysis of contamination trends. All of this can help manufacturers to keep up to speed with how their production processes are operating and help to demonstrate due diligence, should the worst happen.
Evolving with the Food Safety Landscape
The international food market has undergone an immense transformation since 2009, with increased globalization of the supply chain and the introduction of a raft of rigorous safety regulations worldwide. To continue to comply with legislation and retain access to lucrative overseas markets while remaining competitive on the world stage, food manufacturers need to ensure that they have the most up-to-date product inspection systems installed on their lines to optimize contaminant detection without compromising on productivity.
Product inspection system specialists are constantly developing their technologies to stay ahead of changes in the food safety landscape and to meet customer requirements. Working with such specialists, food manufacturers can ensure that their product inspection processes are capable of evolving with the food market, maximizing safety, and helping them to avoid a costly recall.
King is global head sales, service, and marketing, for Eagle Product Inspection. Reach him at +44 (0)1763 244 858.