The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) system classifies risks to consumers into three categories—biological, chemical, and physical—and it emphasizes preventing, reducing, or eliminating high-risk biological hazards. Food safety professionals, as a result of years of education, experience, and audits to the HACCP system, often relegate physical hazards to lower risk status, primarily controlled through the metal detector and supplier approval programs. When focusing on microorganisms, it is easy for the food safety professional to forget that the “illness” in “food borne illnesses” encompasses injuries as well as disease.
The general public, however, has a different perspective on food safety hazards. Consider a salad with fresh, crisp lettuce, crunchy cucumbers, and juicy tomatoes. Food safety professionals see a salad as a bowl potentially brimming with E. coli O157:H7, pesticides, and insects. Consumers, however, won’t notice the E. coli O157:H7 and are unlikely to be concerned about chemicals, unless it’s a question about the organic status of the vegetables. But they will notice a grasshopper nestled under the lettuce at the bottom of the dish. Where food safety professionals focus their actions on the intangible risks of biological and chemical hazards, consumers focus on the material risks of physical hazards.
This example illustrates the importance of foreign material control. Though Salmonella and hepatitis A may keep the food industry awake at night, consumers remember, and tell their neighbors, about the grasshopper in their salad or glass in their spaghetti sauce.
Foreign material is defined as foreign bodies that may cause illness or injury to the consumer, or are perceived by the consumer to be alien to the food. While not all foreign material is harmful, it is a physical hazard and its potential to cause injury or illness must be considered. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) recognizes three risks to the consumer from foreign materials—physical injury to the consumer, choking, and product tampering.
Foreign material in foods (glass, plastic, metal, etc.) is the major single cause of customer complaints received by many food manufactsurers, retailers, and enforcement authorities. In Canada, 42 percent of consumer food safety investigations conducted by the CFIA between April 2011 and March 2012 were the result of consumer complaints of extraneous materials, whereas only 11 percent of the 496 recalls issued in 2012 were caused by extraneous materials.
It’s not hard to understand why foreign materials account for such a high percentage of customer complaints; physical hazards are easily identified by the consumer. Physical hazards can often be seen in the food item before consumption whereas biological and chemical hazards are rarely identified by sight. Consumers can also feel the presence of a physical hazard in their food; biting into a piece of wood, chipping a tooth on a date pit, or choking on a piece of plastic are all dramatic
incidents. They also have an emotional reaction to foreign material. While a grasshopper may stimulate disgust, it’s not likely to be seen as hazardous. Other materials, however, such as glass, metal, or plastic, are seen as dangerous and the consumer will likely notify the manufacturer or the government.
Sources of Foreign Material
To prevent injury to the consumer, it is necessary to understand what types of foreign material can contaminate food and where this contamination occurs. Foreign materials are classified as either intrinsic (a component of the food such as bones, stems, or pits) or extrinsic (materials not normally found in food, such as stones, insects, plastic, glass, or metal). These categories indicate that physical hazards may contaminate food at any stage of production, from the farmer’s field, e.g. stones in grain, to the consumer’s kitchen, e.g. glassware.
Raw Materials and Process. Controlling foreign materials requires understanding three items: First, are there physical hazards intrinsic to your raw materials? Second, are there physical hazards inherent in your process? Third, are there hazards commonly associated with the food product when it’s consumed? A well-documented hazard analysis can help the producer, from the field to the manufacturer, focus its resources on the highest risk sources of foreign materials. The identification of physical hazards (FSEP Form 7) associated with raw materials (FSEP Form 2) and process (FSEP Form 3) facilitates the hazard analysis (FSEP Form 8). Once the high-risk items and processes have been identified, effective control and monitoring strategies can be developed and implemented. As a result, virtually every HACCP plan has some form of foreign material control as a critical control point.