This is similar to when an automobile comes out with better technology from a safety standpoint and all the old vehicles don’t upgrade to the technology, or only the high-end new vehicles incorporate the latest technical advances. The consumers may choose to add the new features, but at a cost. You may think it would be standard for everyone to have back-up cameras on their car to prevent running over a toddler in the driveway, but that is not always the case. In the camera scenario, the consumer gets to choose. In foreign object control for food, the decision is left to the manufacturers.
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Customers put their faith in the producers and trust they will make a safe-quality food using the best technology possible.
The government (FDA, USDA, etc.) does not specifically mandate technology or tolerances acceptable for foreign material in foods. They have limits for things such as choking hazards and standards for what would be considered product adulteration. However, the trust and responsibility lie in the hands of the manufacturers to protect the consumer.
What’s in Your Food?
People have laughed when I asked them, “What’s in your food?” They usually respond by saying the ingredients. Seldom have I heard them say they found foreign material in their food. However, it is not uncommon for a consumer to find small bone chips in meat products, stones and glass in agricultural products, and dense brittle plastic in other manufactured items. When I share this information with them, it often comes up that they do remember a time when they had a foreign material incident in their food. It may have been a bone chip in a ground sausage product or a stone in their lentils. It may have been a piece of paper or plastic they found. They may not have been injured, but it did create a memory that they will carry with them for a long time.
As manufacturers, we want our customers to have only positive memories and experiences. When a consumer has a negative encounter with a product, we want to do everything possible to resolve the issue and make the customer happy. Sometimes it involves addressing a perception that the customer has acquired, and we can help shape their thought process in a positive direction. But when it comes to foreign material, there aren’t any customers who would say we could change their mind and get them to believe that a small amount of foreign material is acceptable in their food.
As for X-ray technology, it is not a catch-all and it is not 100 percent fool-proof. In fact, for certain metal conditions it may not be as sensitive as a standard metal detector. However, there are multiple things that X-ray can do in combination with other programs and food safety tools to help ensure the customer receives a safe-quality product. X-ray not only helps in identifying foreign materials, but is can detect missing components, determine mass/weights of product, and find cracked/misshapen products, along with other uses.
Many Fortune 500 companies and other progressive companies are installing X-ray machines to help detect foreign material in their process. Just like with any technology, it will take time for it to become an industry standard, but I can see a future in which all food manufacturers will be using this technology to help prevent their own consumers from chipping a tooth.
Hetherman, an operating partner in X-ray inspection for food at Service Cold Storage, has 22 years of experience in the food manufacturing industry. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 715-600-4657.