(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the February/March 2018 issue.)
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Seems like just yesterday, I found myself answering a customer complaint for a chipped tooth. As a prior vice president of quality at a large food manufacturer, I asked myself how could a person chip a tooth on a piece of food, given all the great foreign material prevention programs my company had in place?
Third-party auditors gave my company high marks for its food safety programs. Though the company received high scores, I wondered if it could do even better. Programs were in place for analyzing hazards, internal standard operating procedures, and supplier approval programs—all designed to protect the customer. Filters and metal detectors were installed on manufacturing lines to identify foreign material and help prevent it from getting into the food. However, all the technology and programs did not prevent the inevitable based on customer complaints.
A consumer “claimed” he cracked a tooth on a stone when he took a bite from a food product. Being the VP of quality, I put a great deal of thought into it but based on the limited information, I could not ultimately prove the crack was, or wasn’t, caused by the company’s product. What I did know was that a person was injured, possibly as a result of a product my company manufactured. The product was made with real potatoes, which are grown in the dirt—yes grown in the dirt with rocks and other organic and non-organic materials along with whatever else ends up in the farm field where the potatoes are grown.
This potato incident had me asking about the company’s manufacturing technology. Despite various efforts and all the programs in place on the lines to protect the final consumer and assure a safe-quality product, it seemed that the systems had potentially failed in one instant. Not only did I feel personal responsibility to investigate this further, I wanted to get my arms around the extent of the problem—how widespread it might be within the company—to better understand how often this might be happening to other consumers.
I began to investigate the overall customer complaints for these types of company products and found that this was not the first time a customer had complained about a rock or other hard object in their food. In fact, it happened to be the most common complaint for foreign material. This made me wonder how many more companies and products made with “real” ingredients may have similar issues and how this can be prevented by the manufacturers.
Getting Pro-Active Using X-ray Technology
This was the first time I investigated X-ray technology for this specific process. I had previous experience using X-ray technology to investigate known incidents, but I was reacting to the situation and not being pro-active. X-ray technology was available, but it was much more expensive than the standard metal detection systems the company had in place. In fact, it was between five and 10 times the cost depending on the type and quality level of the machine. But what is the cost of protecting your brand and the health of your consumers? Most people will agree that protecting the customer, the brand, and the overall company reputation is the most important thing, even beyond the money. It might seem like an easy answer from a logical standpoint—that manufacturers would use the best technology possible to prevent foreign materials in product. However, the answer is not always so simple.
As a manufacturer, there are many things that come into play before making a capital purchase to improve the technology from standard metal detectors to X-ray. A plant may have line constraints that prevent expansion such as spacing to fit the technology; line speeds that may not work with the new technology; and cost limitations, which may prevent adding the technology. I have even heard manufacturers state that “there is not a return on investment” for X-ray if they only have to pay out a few thousand dollars a year on medical expenses for cracked teeth or other injuries versus paying hundreds of thousands to install X-ray technology.