Food contamination caused by bacteria or chemicals gets most of the attention when it comes to news stories. In 2018, the main headline-grabbing contaminants were Listeria, Salmonella, and E. coli—all three of which prompted recalls that included cheese products, salads, meats, and pet foods.
While recalls due to such bacterial contamination get a lot of attention, the fact is that the presence of foreign material in food continues to be a larger growing problem. It’s a significant enough problem that, on March 8 of this year, the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced a new guideline for the meat and poultry industry dealing with customer complaints in direct response to contamination from plastic, metal, and other foreign materials.
Those new guidelines require contamination incidents to be reported to the FSIS within 24 hours.
The government agency says it renewed its emphasis on responding to complaints of foreign materials following dozens of complaints and recalls last year due to foreign contamination in chicken, sausage, and other meat products.
Are Contaminants More Common, or Are We Better at Catching Them?
As the number of reported incidents continues growing, many consumers question what’s going on with the food supply. Are there more instances of contamination, or does our 24/7 news cycle just make sure we’re hearing about them?
The truth is, it’s probably a little bit of both. The industry has become more sophisticated in its ability to detect contaminants, whether they are biological, chemical, or physical. A September 2018 story on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition noted that then-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottleib believed today’s food supply is safer than ever; what has changed is our ability to identify threats to our food and stop them from reaching consumers.
Preventing food contamination by foreign materials begins with understanding where the danger lies. There are a number of different ways for contaminants to enter the food supply, and as our food chain becomes increasingly global, those entry points continue to grow. Any time a new ingredient is introduced, from the field to the final stage of packaging, it also introduces a new opportunity for physical contamination.
Among the many sources of foreign contaminants in food products are pieces of manufacturing equipment, such as a blade, a wire, or a cracked gasket, that fall into the food. They can come from employees losing objects like an earring or a pen; a broken glass during packaging can also contaminate product. Or, it might come in the form of a rock or pieces of wood from where the food product or ingredient originated.
Further adding to contamination is the growing use of plastic materials. Today, plastic and rubber are two of the most common materials used in a food manufacturing plant—and while that makes the process easier for manufacturing in many ways, it has also created new headaches for food producers. Recently, two of the largest meat and poultry producers had to conduct recalls on their products, which totaled almost 100,000 pounds, due to rubber contamination.
Regardless of what type of physical contaminant it is or where the contamination occurred, the time to correct it is before that product hits the shelves and reaches consumers. Today’s increasingly sophisticated detection systems are designed to do just that.
Finding Foreign Materials in Food
Today’s food manufacturers have many choices when it comes to the type of equipment they use to safeguard their food. One of those options is X-ray inspection.
X-ray inspection machines have the ability to find all types of foreign material, including metal, bone, plastic, glass, rubber, wood, and more. The machines use a detector and programming algorithm to reject potential foreign contaminants based on a difference in their density. Since they are able to detect all types of foreign objects, they’re particularly effective in food manufacturing environments.
Even within the category of X-ray inspection machines, there are certain differences to consider. Inline X-ray inspection machines typically use flat-panel technology and are small enough to fit into the body of the inspection machine. They’re similar to the equipment used by the TSA for baggage screening at airports and will flag the presence of foreign materials, but they have certain limitations due to the speed of the production line and the power of the X-ray.
Since a food manufacturer may be running thousands of pounds of product per hour, inline machines aren’t able to typically keep up with the speed of production and likely can only alarm that there is a problem. That, in turn, means the indication of foreign material can cause the quarantine of thousands of pounds of product. At the same time, the higher rate of speed combined with operational desensitization to limit a higher rate of defaults can also keep the machine from detecting smaller contaminants, such as those less than 3 to 5 mm.
These machines let manufacturers become aware of the presence of foreign materials, allowing food producers to decide what their next steps will be to prevent the contaminated product from reaching consumers.
Third-party X-ray inspection services are a supplement to existing screening and detection methods, not an alternative. When an inline machine flags a problem, a third-party X-ray inspection service can then work through the quarantined product to find the contaminated product faster and more affordably than any other option. Dollar for dollar, it’s less expensive to have the product examined by a third-party service than it is to try reworking the product in the existing facility, to dispose of the full production run, or to risk a lawsuit or recall.
Because third-party X-ray inspection services are dedicated entirely to inspection, they operate at a much slower speed, which allows technicians to monitor each item individually as it passes through the machine. In a food production environment, it’s not feasible to have a designated worker visually watching a screen to look for contaminants. The speed of the line makes this an impossibility, but for a third-party inspection service, such monitoring is critical and is more effective.
For example, FlexXray’s custom X-ray inspection machines can detect multiple contaminants as small as 0.8 mm (or even smaller in most cases), and line technicians are trained to notice issues and changes in density that signal the presence of foreign material contamination. When such a change is noted, the technician can stop the line and zoom in on the area in question for a magnified image. If identified as a foreign contaminant, the product in question can be immediately removed from the line and segregated from the saleable product for safe and proper disposal.
Foreign material contamination issues aren’t an isolated problem—they’re something that every food manufacturer faces. Knowing your options and having a plan in place to resolve an issue when it occurs is the best insurance to avoid a costly recall or lawsuit and to keep business operations running smoothly.