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Are you identifying all contaminants?

18 May 2020

Phil Brown identifies the common contamination culprits in food products and explains how to improve identification. 

The most common contaminants found in food products include metal – for example fragments that break off during mechanical cutting and blending operations – glass from storage or packaging, and hard plastics introduced by fatigued tools and equipment. Despite recent legislation focusing on prevention rather than control, identifying physical contaminants is not always straightforward.

In the raw ingredient phase food is exposed to a variety of different processes which can, potentially, lead to foreign fragments finding their way into the food supply chain.

Each sector comes with its own set of risks. With convenience meals, there can be more than eight production steps between sourcing ingredients to packing, and more than five different product components in each product. This increases metal and plastic contamination risks.

Intrinsic contaminants are common in protein ingredients, such as bones or teeth from fish, meat and poultry. They can also occur in fresh produce, for example fruit and vegetable pips or egg shells. In the dairy and bakery sectors, physical hazards can occur through ingredients used during processing and could even be introduced from packaging material, for example paper, plastic and glass. Additional objects that fall under the category include those accidentally exposed by the workforce, for example fingernails, jewellery or processing tools.

An FDA found that approximately one-quarter of all food related complaints it received over the course of a year involved the presence of a visible foreign contaminant. This same study indicated that nearly 15% of the complainants had reportedly suffered an injury or illness which they attributed to the foreign material.

Sources of contamination
Before selecting any inspection equipment it is important that buyers first determine the potential sources of contamination on the product line and manufacturing process. Take a step back and look at each processing point, the equipment that is being used, and every possible contamination scenario and revisit this regularly. 
If the most common contaminant is metal, it is advisable to consider a highly sensitive metal detector as a first option. But if your production line involves multiple processes and ingredients, or if you use metal foil for packaging, an x-ray could system provide a ‘catch-all’ solution. 

X-ray might cost more upfront, but consider the practicalities of dealing with a product recall and the costs that it would incur. 
A key benefit of x-ray is that it is non-destructive, non-selective and can be used to detect a larger range of materials with high resolution. With optional integrated data collection software, the latest models give food manufacturers the tools to detect metal, glass, mineral stone, rubber compounds and calcified bones while disclosing any product defects and process and packaging problems with 100% accuracy. 

Also look for additional details that can save you money in the long run. For example, Sparc inspection systems – including the Apollo x-ray and Iris Pipeline x-ray – use electro drives rather than compressed air to facilitate faster inspection. These electric drives are proven to save food factories £4,000 annually per line.

Complementary technologies
The benefits of x-ray technology are further enhanced when working in conjunction with streamlined inspection machinery. Beyond finding physical contaminants, factory food waste is a large and continually growing issue for manufacturers and one where choices about production equipment (including X-ray and other quality control) can have a surprising impact on outcomes. 

According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) the ready meal and chilled product sectors alone generate 12% of global food waste, with poor quality production including under- or over-packing accounting for 3.5% of this. A checkweighing feature provides the means to process product at an accurate weight, offsetting the potential of both product giveaway and incomplete packages from reaching the market. 

This is where the competing demands of food safety and food waste overlap – and where the latest inspection technology can help to cut waste and ensure safety and quality. Depending on the supply chain and physical hazard risks that come with it, a combination unit could be a good investment. Sparc’s Theia combination x-ray machine, for example, can detect contaminants such as metal, glass or bone. In addition to automatically removing fails from the production line, it disposes of packages that have an out-of-tolerance weight into a separate lockable bin so contaminated packs do not get confused for under or overfilled ones. This, in turn, leads to bottom line savings, as weight-rejected items can be reworked and sent back into the production line. 

For traceability and to enhance personal safety, Sparc has designed a protective high-density acrylic window on its Apollo and Theia systems so that operatives can see up to 200 packs per minute travelling through the system. Rather than carrying on unaware, operatives can halt production lines instantly, slide open the doors, clear and clean the conveyor, minimising disruption and reducing the likelihood of product damage. The systems also offer fully traceable paperless machine testing audits, ensuring transparency at this critical point in the process. 

Which technology is best suited to a particular operation will depend largely on the results of a food safety audit and the types of contaminants a manufacturer is expected to encounter. If metal is the only concern, a fully integrated, combination metal detection packaging inspection and checkweighing system is a practical combination. 

In the interests of increased consumer safety, production quality and waste reduction, solutions such as Sparc’s Cerberus Checkweigher provides scales and metal detection in one space-saving unit. With both technologies in place, a combination unit is capable of rejecting items containing metal contaminants, inspecting the label and reducing product giveaway and subsequent food waste by up to 55%.  

Of course, the decision to invest in x-ray or metal detection equipment is dependent upon a manufacturer’s requirements. Both technologies come with their own advantages; neither should be a replacement for good manufacturing practices, but rather food safety units should complement the process based on needs and risks.

Phil Brown is managing director at Sparc Systems.

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