(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the February/March 2018 issue.)
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.
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.
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.