Good manufacturers faced with the issue of contamination from foreign particles have several immediate concerns — as well as some long-term ones. Depending on the cause and type of physical contamination, the situation might call for an overhaul of practices within the food processing plant. It might mean a review of practices to ensure the problem doesn’t recur.
However, more immediately, managers who are concerned about contamination from a foreign material face questions of how to resolve the situation in the most cost-effective and efficient way. Part of that decision depends on how the contaminant is discovered, but much of it has to do with weighing the costs and consequences of each option.
A foreign contaminant is discovered in several common ways. One way is by metal detection, which signals the presence of a physical hazard. Another way could be by an inline X-ray inspection system that indicates a foreign object is in the product. Alternatively, it could be that foreign material was found through inline magnets or filter socks, leading to concern about the overall safety of the production run.
Then there is that moment that all plant managers and workers dread: when a sanitation break reveals a missing bolt or broken blade that is unaccounted for. This presents the possibility of foreign material contamination as a real threat to the product.
Regardless of how the contaminant is found, what happens next can have a significant impact on a company’s bottom line — not to mention its reputation.
Options for handling foreign material contamination
All too often, the discovery of a foreign particle leads to a great deal of wasted product. This is because a food manufacturer has many choices to make once a product is flagged as being contaminated, and the choices bring concerns about costs, such as those associated with using a third-party inspection service to locate and remove a product containing a physical hazard.
When a contamination issue is discovered, a decision has to be made about how to manage the situation in a cost-effective way that will protect both the company and its customers.
The options typically come down to four choices: dispose of the full production run and eliminate all risk; rework the product in-house in hopes of identifying the contaminant; take a considerable risk and ship the contaminated product; or work with a third-party X-ray inspection service to locate the foreign material.
Option 1: Dispose of the full production run
The advantage of disposing of a full production run is that it provides a company with complete confidence that the contaminant has been destroyed and, therefore, will never reach consumers. Downsides to this approach are the costs.
In addition to being required to dispose of the product in a proper facility, as mandated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), safe transportation of the contaminated product to the disposal facility must be arranged and all the required permits (as required by local, state and federal guidelines) must be procured. The company will also have to bear the financial damage of having the product out of stock while the next production run tries to catch up. Re-running the product line could result in double the costs by having to repurchase all the products used to make the replacement product, in addition to paying for labor and new packaging.
While this option does provide complete confidence that the contaminant will never reach consumers, it contributes immensely to the issue of food waste and has significant hard and soft costs.
Option 2: Troubleshoot and rework the product in-house
When a detector signals contamination or contamination is suspected, manufacturers can use in-house resources to troubleshoot the problem. Running the product through the inline inspection equipment again to locate the contaminant could help narrow down the probable cause. If the foreign material is found, the contaminated product can be disposed of and the rest of the product distributed safely.
However, if equipment fails to detect the foreign material, the company has invested labor and reallocated use of the production line without solving the problem. The challenge of what to do with the contaminated product remains and, in many ways, the company is faced with the same choice about what steps to take next.
Option 3: Take a risk and ship the product as-is (not recommended)
If the reason contamination is suspected is because there is a missing rubber gasket or a broken blade, there is a chance it didn’t land in the product. Shipping the product for distribution and hoping that it didn’t make it into the food is a risky gamble, but it is the most cost-effective solution up-front. However, if a retailer or consumer finds the foreign particle in the food or beverage, this can end up being the most expensive choice of all. It could potentially lead to a multimillion dollar recall, litigation and a lot of bad publicity resulting in lost revenue.
Option 4: Use a third-party X-ray inspection service
X-ray inspection services that are designed to detect and eliminate foreign materials serve a different purpose than manufacturers’ inline inspection machines. While inline machines can detect contamination, the speed of the production line doesn’t always allow for the problem to be accurately identified.
Third-party X-ray food inspection services are specifically dedicated to locating foreign contaminants and eliminating their presence with the least amount of food waste possible. Because of this, the line runs at a slower pace, allowing the bracketed product to be reviewed carefully through X-ray technology.
While a production line passes hundreds of feet per second through its inspection system, a third-party X-ray inspection may run a single pallet in an hour. Also, with full-time monitoring of the screen, there is always someone looking for the presence of a foreign object.
In some cases, a food manufacturer may suspect the presence of a physical contaminant and, upon having third-party X-ray inspection, will find that their product actually contained more contaminants than they originally believed were present.
The difference between inline and third-party X-ray inspection
Even with an inline X-ray inspection machine in use, a third-party X-ray inspection is often the best answer when foreign materials are detected. That is because the type of X-ray inspection used by inline machines and third-party inspectors are created for different environments and, therefore, can fill very different roles.
The flat panel technology of inline inspection machines is more compact and fits well within the production line environment. However, third-party inspection services dedicated to finding foreign materials are larger and more capable of zooming in on objects for closer inspection to ensure complete safety.
These capabilities allow inspectors to identify contaminants and then dispose of the foreign object (or objects) before the product has the chance to reach customers.
Benefits of third-party X-ray inspection
A third-party X-ray solution creates the least amount of food waste, as the remaining product that is free of physical contaminants can then be shipped to
customers. This option gives food manufacturers complete confidence their product is safe and free of hazards, and the waste is minimal since the only product that needs to be disposed of is the product that is actually contaminated.
When a company detects or suspects food contamination from foreign material, bracketing and throwing it away should never be the first response. Today, there are more ways to prevent disposing of food that may be contaminated, and working with a third-party X-ray inspection service is one way to make sure that food manufacturers have the best preventive tools needed to keep consumers safe and to keep food waste at a minimum.
Chris Keith is the vice president of sales, marketing and customer service at FlexXray, a leading foreign material X-ray inspection company, serving a majority of the largest food companies in North America. Keith may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.