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Product inspection: When there is no margin for error

03 July 2017

Neil Giles looks at product inspection issues – surrounding productivity, protection and quality – encountered in the meat and poultry industry. 

The meat and poultry industry is expected to see steady increases in terms of production turnover in the years to come. According to recent figures, compiled by Mettler-Toledo, Asia Pacific will reach figures of over £354 million by 2020, with Europe following at over £269 million. Profit margins remain notoriously tight in this industry, so producing significant volumes of a high-quality product that is compliant with food safety regulations is a daily challenge.

Food safety is always of paramount importance of course, and meat processors will be subject to compliance with Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations. An audit will be carried out to identify critical control points, at which product inspection systems are invariably placed in order to mitigate the risks outlined. For meat processors, X-ray and metal detection systems are the most likely systems to be deployed.

Once the need for product inspection system has been identified, the next challenge is to find a solution that does not interfere with production. Downtime is the enemy in any manufacturing environment, but when margins are slim it is even more important that lines are able to run unhindered. This is where in-line inspection systems come into their own, as 100% of product is able to be inspected for contaminants without having to stop or decrease line speeds. 

Strategic placement
Where metal is identified as the main contamination risk, metal detectors can be positioned strategically on the line. As meat is considered to be a wet product, the high moisture content can cause what is known as product effect – a phenomenon whereby the characteristics of the product itself can inhibit the equipment's ability to identify specific contaminants. This can lead to a higher wastage level due to false rejects. Modern metal detectors, such as the Profile Advantage from Mettler-Toledo Safeline, have been designed to overcome product effect in challenging applications, ensuring wastage is kept to minimum and that profit margins are protected. They also have the ability to overcome product effect, and also find smaller contaminants. 

X-ray systems are also often a popular choice on meat processing lines as they are capable of detecting a wide variety of contaminants in-line, such as calcified bone, glass, mineral stone, high density plastics and rubber and metal. X-ray can be used in all applications for contaminant detection and is capable of accurate results even at high speeds. Systems can often be found in bulk flow applications, pipeline systems and in the inspection of processed unpackaged and packaged products regardless of whether product is frozen, fresh or dried.

Product inspection systems can carry out many other tasks simultaneously, alongside their inspection role. Checkweighers, for example, are often used to monitor completeness in packaged products. They can also interact directly with fillers, for example, to ensure regulatory compliance in areas such as weights and measures without wasting valuable product – either through giveaway or the need to rework. 

Other benefits
X-ray systems are able to fulfil a wide range of tasks, such as checking packages for missing components or product defects such as holes or shape and edge defects. Packs of sausages are a good example of how these additional quality checks can be used to maximum effect. X-ray systems can also be used for mass measurement purposes, which is critical in applications such as fresh minced meat, for example. 

Other quality checks are also able to be performed simultaneously, such as fill level inspection and the identification of trapped product within the seal of a package to ensure safety and freshness of the product. As an example, mettle Toledo’s X39 system has the ability to check burger patties for contaminants, correct shape and also for any excess meat flakes on top of the burger that may have accumulated when they are frozen. This last check is an important health and safety benefit that should be conveyed to buyers of frozen burger patties. Excess flakes on a patty have been found to catch fire while being grilled, posing a health & safety issue.

Reject systems used in conjunction with product inspection systems can also be custom designed to suit a variety of applications. These provide a further level of protection against waste as less good product is removed once a contaminant is identified on the line. Conveyers will also be scrutinised ahead of installation to ensure there are no points in the inspection process where good product could potentially be lost and wasted.

Hygienic design 
Given the environment in which meat is processed and packaged, food safety regulations require very strict and often harsh wash-down to be carried out on all production line equipment. Compliance with food safety and quality standards such as BRC, IFS, FSSC 22000 or SQF is vital, which is why Mettler-Toledo systems are designed to meet EHEDG (European Hygienic Engineering & Design Group) and NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) hygienic design guidelines. 

This should give end-users the confidence that their systems are easy to clean and are of full stainless steel construction. Surfaces are designed to be smooth, with no sharp angles, therefore reducing the risk of harbouring unwanted matter that could cause bacteria to build up. Where appropriate, systems are also complaint with IP69 ingress protection ratings, meaning they can be washed down using high pressure washers and chemicals with no risk of damage to the electronics. 

By installing a system that has been designed for use in a harsh environment, such as a meat processing plant, manufacturers can be assured that biological and chemical contamination risks are reduced, regulatory requirements are satisfied, and that the systems will stand the test of time due to the rugged design and construction. 

There are many different applications in the meat and poultry industry and it is vital to select the correct inspection systems based on both production and regulatory requirements. For meat, product can be bulk flow, pipelined, unpackaged, packaged, cooked, raw, frozen, dried and everything in between. Whatever the product, when dealing with meat a HACCP audit will first take place to establish the critical control points. Then it is up to the business to ensure that those points are adequately covered and in a way that fits in with its overall quality control programme.

Neil Giles is marketing communications manager at the Product Inspection Division of Mettler-Toledo. 

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