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Keeping abreast of the changes

23 November 2015

End of line checks are the last point at which food manufacturers can ensure they are providing a safe, quality product for consumers. But it’s also one of the most vital, not only for food safety but also production quality, speed and efficiency. Can current technology meet the demands of today’s manufacturer?

Time may seem to move slowly in the food industry, but it may come as a surprise how many new regulations and guidelines have affected the sector in the past five years. New technology is also coming in leaps and bounds and it’s in the interests of food processors to look to the new technology to keep their processes within the new regulations as they become stricter and less relaxed. 

Version 6 of the International Food Standard (IFS) came into effect in July 2012, and it is designed to allow the assessment of suppliers’ food safety and quality systems in accordance with a uniform approach. 

“Leading commercial companies demand the IFS certificate in order to increase consumer safety,” explains Ian Breeze, UK Manager of Industry Solutions at Bizerba UK. “The directives for the tests are becoming stricter. To remain flexible and thus competitive for further updates, producers of food require checkweighers and inspections which constantly provide a bit more than is currently called for.”

IFS 6 requires the tester to not just solely test product safety, but also pay attention to quality management, such as how do manufacturers guarantee and document that products are correctly portioned. There are also guidelines for packaging, ensuring that all printed nutritional values are correctly dated. “Systems can check with cameras above and below whether the bar code, information and best before date are correct by comparing the current products with a reference object from a database,” says Breeze. “If everything doesn’t match, a pusher discards the product. There can be serious consequences for allergy sufferers, if for instance nut chocolate is falsely packaged, for example in a milk chocolate wrapper.”

New challenges
Compared to five years ago, food manufacturers face more challenges than ever when it comes to inspecting their products and ensuring safety and quality in compliance with food safety standards. 

In addition to IFS 6, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) published their Global Standard for Food Safety Issue 7 in January 2015, which set a new benchmark for best practice in food manufacturing. And in December 2014, stricter requirements were set for what to include on product labels. The new EU Regulation 1169/2011 means that manufacturers have to include additional information about the ingredients found within the product. These include details about every ingredient by quantity, energy content, caffeine content and allergenic properties, all of which need to be displayed in a clear, legible and easy to understand manner. 

“The newly-launched BRC 7 goes further as it requires manufacturers to list all raw materials, processing aids and new product development (NPD) ingredients on their labels,” explains Neil Giles, Marketing Communications Manager – Product Inspection Division, Mettler-Toledo. “These stipulations, and the provisions of EU 1169/2011, have been incorporated with the aim of optimising the safety and wellbeing of consumers by enabling them to make a more informed decision about the impact of the food they choose to eat. All of this means that manufacturers have to be more diligent than ever before that their product packaging contains accurate and legible information to comply with legislation and protect consumer wellbeing.”

With this in mind, product inspection equipment has had to develop further to provide food manufacturers with the high performance end of line product inspection system technology they need to ensure their production lines are able to meet today’s challenges. 

“There have been developments in x-ray inspection detection sensitivity to enable manufacturers to not just optimise inspection of finished packaged products for physical contamination from fragments of metal, glass, calcified bone, stone, dense plastics or rubber,” says Giles. “They can also simultaneously check ready meals, multi-packs or even boxes of packs for missing or broken components, as well as inspect seal integrity on perishable items and measure weight or fill level for portion control, ensuring optimum product quality without compromising on throughput rate and process efficiency. The next generation x-ray inspection technology uses a 20 Watt x-ray generator rather than the traditional 100 Watt generator, which provides the high detection sensitivity required to perform end of line inspection of packaging products while consuming just a fifth of the power, lowering energy usage and helping to significantly decrease production costs for manufacturers without impacting on food safety.”

User interface and audit trails
In the past few years especially, user interfaces have become much more user friendly and have the ability to communicate via Ethernet. This means that technology is not only open to the possibility of interacting down the line with other technology, but it also means data collection has become much easier, improving transparency in the process and during audits.

“A prime example of interaction with other equipment is the ever increasing use of checkweighers to provide active feedback to fillers and cutters based on real time data to reduce giveaway to an absolute minimum while also using the checkweigher for average weight control and records,” says Peter Walker, Inspection Product Specialist at Sartorius Intec. “Being able to achieve 100% checking allows a fill level much closer to tolerance than sampling ever would with no risk of an out of tolerance batch. 

“Audit trails are a relatively new feature of end of line inspection but essentially fulfil the demand for traceability of adjustments and operator inputs to a piece of equipment,” he continues. “The audit trail itself is the record made by the unit’s software which tracks who has accessed which features and which changes were made. Combined with technology like fingerprint sensors to control access to equipment settings greatly reduces the chance of operators being able to shortcut procedures, ensuring an accurate audit trail.”

Minimising giveaway
Advances in checkweigher design have enabled manufacturers to minimise costly giveaway on their production lines. New checkweigher technologies are able to offer 33% enhanced weighting precision of finished packaged products at high throughput speeds compared to traditional technologies. Operating costs can be streamlined without compromising high line speeds and productivity by reducing under and overfill. Advanced checkweighers are also equipped with feedback control, a useful addition that enables the checkweigher to feedback information about adverse weighing trends from the end of the production line to the filling systems upstream. Portion sizes can then be automatically adjusted based on the information, which minimises the incidence of future product under or overfill and ensures consumer satisfaction while reducing waste from product giveaway and protecting profit margins for the manufacturer.

“Modern production inspection systems also offer features designed to help manufacturers enhance Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) throughout their production lines to further improve efficiency,” Giles reveals. “Advanced metal detection technologies, for example, include Packaging Machine Language (PackML), which simplifies machine-to-machine integration to enable manufacturers to access the machines from a remote location to control monitoring and reporting of production line data. Once crucial data is collated and analysed, manufacturers can use it to optimise production line efficiency and reduce maintenance or changeover downtime.”

They can also include new OEE reporting enhancements that transmit key data relating to the equipment’s performance directly to the company’s Management Information System (MIS). This information can then be used by machine operatives to adjust the metal detectors’ settings and make improvements to the production line around the machine to maximise OEE and boost line productivity.

Metal detectors are radio frequency devices, which emit a very low power magnetic field. In simple terms, the product to be inspected is conveyed through this magnetic field. If the product is contaminated with metal, the magnetic field will be disturbed. This disturbance is processed and referred to as a detection signal. This signal is then used to activate a reject action of some sort to prevent the contaminated product from being allowed through the metal detection system. The difficulty in obtaining better levels of detection, i.e. finding smaller pieces of metal contamination, isn’t one of being able to use a more powerful magnetic field. This would not only have obvious safety implications, it would also be counterproductive. The difficulty actually lies in cancelling out the response to the affect of the magnetic field in the product as it passes through the metal detector.

“In processing the signal from the product, the metal detector uses a phase discrimination circuit to reduce or ideally cancel out the signal received back from the product,” explains Pete Higgins, Technical Sales Director at Metal Detection Services. “This process is known as phasing out or compensating the product signal.”

The better the cancellation of the product signal, then the higher the level of sensitivity the metal detector can run at, allowing smaller pieces of metal contamination to be detected.

“Traditionally, conventional frequency metal detectors can be single frequency, dual frequency, multi frequency or variable frequency units,” says Higgins. “Regardless of the amount of frequencies available to the metal detector, they can only use one of the available frequencies for each product setting. The development of the multi spectrum metal detector has seen a massive improvement in detection levels. A true multi spectrum metal detector can use many frequencies all at the same time for a product setting. This gives it the ability to cancel out the product signal much more effectively than a conventional frequency metal detector. This effective cancellation provides a much greater tolerance to variation in product signal due to temperature and moisture variation ensuring false detections can now be a thing of a past.”

Detectors operating with two frequencies simultaneous are available, but do not have the performance capability of the true multi spectrum system.

“Detection levels to wet products, or products packaged in metallised film are the most noticeable improvement,” Higgins continues. “The response particularly to 304/316 grades of stainless steel can be as good as half the diameter of the test sample for a conventional frequency detector. Half the diameter is one eighth of the volume, this gives the multi spectrum detector a massive advantage in finding small irregularly shaped contaminants. Detection levels comparable to x-ray are possible on certain applications. Detection of aluminium is in between the levels achieved for non-ferrous metal and 304/316 stainless steel. With metal being the most likely source of contamination in many factories, the multi spectrum metal detector provides a giant and safe cost effective leap in HACCP compliance.”

Packaging formats
“Rising production costs and growing competition on supermarket shelves are driving food manufacturers to keep a closer watch on the performance of their production lines to optimise production and ensure profitability,” says Giles. “As the food market becomes increasingly globalised, more manufacturers are expanding their product range, not just with new types of products but with food packaged in a broader array of packaging formats to meet the increasingly diverse expectations of international consumers. These new packaging formats can prove challenging for traditional end-of-line inspection technology.”

Metallised film has traditionally proven a difficult material to inspect when end of line technology is looking for contamination by metal fragments. But now metal detectors that use innovative multi-simultaneous frequency (MSF) technology can now offer up to 50% enhanced sensitivity to overcome the challenge. Using a sophisticated algorithm, the technology eliminates product effect when inspecting for metal fragments in metallised packaging, as well as in wet food applications such as meat, poultry, dairy and baked goods.

Smart test prompts
Smart test prompts ensure that operators carry out routine, correct hourly or half-hourly validation checks.

“An example would be a high level metal detector which can recognise the material of, and position of, the test piece so that the operator can no longer fool the test with a spanner or just mistakenly use the wrong test piece,” says Walker. “Even access to rejected products is controlled by new interfaces which control when and who retrieves rejected product via a pin code in order to further reduce errors in the handling of these products, as well as adding this information to the audit trail.”

Labelling requirements
With the introduction of EU 1169/2011, manufacturers have looked to production inspection equipment installed at the end of their production lines to ensure their labels are correct, positioned correctly and the legibility of the product information is correct.

“In recent years, vision inspection technologies have evolved to allow precision label inspection at high throughput speeds to ensure they contain accurate and comprehensive product information, without compromising on production line efficiency,” explains Giles. “Modern inspection systems can check for label legibility and even correct placement to ensure labels can be easily seen and read by end consumers for compliance with even the most rigorous label regulations. And advanced vision inspection systems can offer enhanced connectivity solutions, enabling them to be easily networked with a manufacturer’s existing production line computer network. Using these solutions, vision inspection systems can feed vital information about rejection rates and about conforming products to a central computer system for machine operatives to analyse later. They can also feedback this information alongside product lot or batch numbers, enhancing traceability in the event of a product recall due to labelling issues, so manufacturers can demonstrate due diligence.”

The challenges faced by food manufacturers have indeed vastly changed in the past five years, with new markets opening up, new competition and stringent new food safety legislation. End of line product inspection technology has kept abreast of these changes, allowing food manufacturers and processors to not only meet these new developments but also exceeding current requirements too. 

“It is clear that end of line technology, certainly with respect to quality systems, has advanced hugely in the last five years, driven by both the retailer’s constant push to improve finished product and reduce risk of product recalls, and also by the need for food manufacturers to be ever more efficient,” says Walker. “Overall, technology has been and will continue to be applied in many ways to ensure the maximum safety of manufactured food products.”

By taking advantage of the solutions available to the industry, food manufacturers can be confident that they are able to comply with current food safety legislation, safeguarding both consumers and their brand reputation, while also enhancing production line efficiency and protecting profit margins.

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