When it comes to your food product, nothing is more important than safety. Just one incident of food safety contamination puts your company’s reputation on the line—not to mention the damage it can do to your bottom line.

Food contamination disasters come in many different forms; they can be biological, chemical or physical. But what they all have in common is that each type of food contamination can be devastating to your operations and have long-lasting effects.

Quality assurance managers do their best to put practices in place that will minimize such occurrences. Each form of contamination has its own methods of prevention and detection, and having procedures in place for each type of contamination prevention is now part of the overall challenge for every food production company. For example, training employees on things like hand washing and garment sanitation, as well as how to break down and sanitize equipment, is crucial in preventing biological contamination.

Today there are many different ways for food producers to prevent and detect physical contamination of food. Adopting multiple methods to detect physical contaminants can give greater assurance that every product going to customers will be safe and contaminant-free.

Where and How Physical Contamination Occurs

Physical contamination comes from many different sources, which is why it’s important to check products in multiple ways. Suppliers are a common source of physical contamination; plant-based ingredients may contain small stones, meat/poultry can contain metal from blades used in the slaughtering process … the list goes on.

Once the product reaches the manufacturing plant and ingredients are assembled, there can be additional opportunities for contamination. Rubber gaskets from equipment, hard plastic from a broken spatula or bucket, belting from a conveyor line, broken glass packaging/bottles, metal from broken sifting/cutting wires, and even nuts and bolts that have worked their way loose can all find their way into food products.

Food processing companies employ several techniques to eliminate contaminants before processing, such as air blowers for ridding produce of leaves and other organic material, or float tanks to rid vegetables of dense foreign objects like stones. Sorting programs, either using electronic scanning machines or people to visually inspect the food on the line, can also help prevent certain foreign particles from making it into the food supply.

Over the past two decades, the capability to search for physical contaminants has changed dramatically, providing food manufacturers with more options and more sophisticated ways to find hazards common to their industry. Detection methods for different types of contamination vary, but some of the most common ways for manufacturers to detect foreign materials in-house are: 

  • Inline strainers: Equipment like screens and filter socks can prevent foreign particles from passing through processing pipes, which makes them good options for beverages and dairy products.
  • Inline magnets: Magnets can help find metal parts in products like baby food, fruit juice, frozen and canned vegetables, sauces, flour and more. The magnets attract a piece of metal and can remove even very small metal fragments. Rare earth magnets, which are the strongest and most effective type of magnet, can even remove fine metal dust or abraded stainless steel.
  • Metal detectors: Metal detectors can locate metal as long as it is of a certain size. They come in many different forms, including inline systems for liquid products and vertical inspection systems, and can be set to each manufacturer’s minimum standards for detection. While they are usually used at the end of the production line, if the product packaging includes any metal, the detector must be placed somewhere before packaging, which opens the door to risking contamination between scanning and packaging.
  • Inline X-ray machines: Inline X-ray machines use flat panel detectors to look for foreign particles. It will flag the product as having a possible physical contaminant so the production run can be bracketed to determine the next steps. It will require additional screening to determine the exact location of the hazard.

While each of these methods have their own merits, they also have limitations that could allow foreign contaminants to slip unnoticed into the food supply.

For example, materials like plastic, wood, glass and stone won’t be found by inline magnets or metal detectors. Screens, inline magnets and filter socks can help capture physical contaminants, but aren’t suitable for all types of food products or all food manufacturing environments.

And even though inline X-ray machines can find fragments and contaminants that change the density of the food product, the speed of the production line may not allow the kind of closer inspection to determine what has triggered a warning of contamination on the food production line.

For that reason, a third-party X-ray inspection service should be considered as an effective part of every food manufacturer’s contamination prevention program.  

Speeding Up Food Safety Without Slowing Down Production

Third-party X-ray inspections provide the ability to pinpoint contaminants and give options for disposal, allowing for the rest of the food in the production run to be salvaged rather than bracketing and disposing of the product. Not only does this save the costs of disposal and re-running the product, but it cuts down on the growing global problem of food waste and prevents edible, salvageable food from being discarded.

One of the primary reasons third-party X-ray inspections are able to pinpoint the contaminated product is that the equipment operates at a much slower speed than a food production line.

Instead of running thousands of pounds of product in an hour, a third-party dedicated X-ray facility is designed to run at much slower speeds focusing on each individual package. Rather than waiting for the machine to electronically signal when a contaminant is discovered, a human worker observes the monitor as each item passes through the X-ray machine.

When a change in density or shading is noted, the worker can stop the line, zoom in on the area in question, identify whether or not it’s a foreign material and take the necessary steps.

Preventing food contamination disasters are crucial to protecting your brand’s reputation, as well as your financial well-being. Using a third-party X-ray inspection service can ensure that foreign particles are detected and disposed of rather than making it into the food supply chain.

Chris Keith is the VP of Sales, Marketing and Customer Service at FlexXray. Based in Arlington, Texas, FlexXray is the nation’s leading foreign material X-ray inspection company, serving a majority of the largest food companies in North America.
Food Safety, Outside Insights, Story