Mincer in Meat Processing Plant

Although pathogens get more press, foreign materials continue to plague the food industry. They are the largest source of consumer complaints, and thus a top reason for recalls. In 2017, over 9 million pounds of food products were recalled because of extraneous material, which was more than the amount recalled for any other reason. And in Q1 of this year, foreign material was the top cause of recalled FDA units — the first time it has held that title since 2016.

Most extraneous material recalls are for meat products, and the most common extraneous material is metal, though plastic, bone, and other contaminants can also find their way into products.

In March at the FPSA Annual Conference, a food safety panel discussed the problem of foreign material contamination and offered some ideas for how OEMs can design their equipment to help processors solve it.

Detecting and preventing foreign material contamination

Clearly the best way to avoid a recall due to foreign materials is to keep those materials out of food products. This requires vigilance every step of the way, from ensuring ingredient suppliers have controls in place to monitoring processes from start to finish.

Several technologies are available to detect foreign matter. According to Richard Hebel, a product manager at Eagle Product Inspection, the three that work the best are metal detectors, imaging systems, and x-ray inspection. Hebel told Meat+Poultry:

“Metal detectors are the cost-effective solution for metallic foreign material, which is also their limitation. Imaging systems provide detection of foreign material on exposed surfaces of meat. The most enhanced of the three technologies is x-ray inspection, which allows foreign-body detection capable of inspecting for metallic and non-metallic contaminants and presents an adequate density difference to the meat before rejecting the substandard product.”

But these technologies aren’t enough. Even with them, some materials — like plastic — remain stubbornly difficult to detect, and processing equipment that’s not designed to prevent foreign material contamination can end up contributing to the problem.  

What suppliers can do to help

The panel emphasized that when it comes to controlling foreign materials, processors can’t do it alone. By designing their equipment to minimize risk, OEMs can partner with processors to keep foreign materials out of food.

Here are a few examples of what OEMs can do:

  • Replace belting with material that doesn’t break or become weak
  • Incorporate metal detection strategies upstream
  • Simplify and automate checks and setup procedures
  • Implement control systems upfront

One equipment part that poses a particular challenge is gaskets. The industry uses a lot of them but struggles to manage them, and even metal detectable gaskets seem to make their way through metal detectors. This is a widespread problem, and one that companies have tried to manage in several ways, including changing the color of the gaskets so that they’re easier to find during manual inspection. A panelist noted that an OEM that developed an efficient way to manage gaskets in a high-throughput environment would give their customers a competitive advantage — which means they’d gain an advantage as well.

Food safety and recall prevention are the responsibility of the entire food and beverage industry. The key takeaway from the discussion at the Annual Conference is that processors are looking to their suppliers to provide new ideas and solutions for tackling the problem together.