KANSAS CITY — Although foreign objects and natural bone fragments may be embedded in a product and escape visual discovery, there’s no hiding from the potential damage they can cause to a company and the reputation of its brands.
“Making sure that food products are safe and free of contamination is a huge concern for all food producers large or small," said Rob Tiernay, director of sales, North America for Anritsu Infivis Inc. "When contaminants such as metal, stone, plastic, glass or bone make their way into food product packages, they become a public health safety hazard and damage your brand image.”
Recalls bring problems with undetected objects into the open.
“Food and poultry processors are continually seeking improved inspection equipment to detect metal and other contaminants in their products and prevent them from entering the marketplace,” said Camilo Sanchez, metal detection product manager for Mettler Toledo. “Their first goal is to keep their customers safe but accurate inspections also protect their brand from damage due to recalls and lawsuits.”
Over the past couple of years, many recalls have gone public – and some in a big way. This spring, a Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. plant in Waco, Texas, announced a 4.5 million-lb. recall of cooked chicken after inspectors found contamination by foreign material. In May, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S) arm of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) expanded the initial recall for a third time to include more products and production dates.
In mid-June, GNP Company, the Cold Spring, Minn.-based producer of the Gold’n Plump poultry line, recalled more than 55,000 lbs of chicken products that it said could be contaminated with “extraneous materials” listed as sand and black soil. Earlier this year, Foster Poultry Farms, Livingston, Calif., recalled more than 220,000 lbs of frozen cooked chicken because of foreign materials. Processors of all types and sizes have experienced detection-related recalls. Huisken Meat Company, Sauk Rapids, Minn., recently issued a recall of nearly 90,000 lbs of its Black Angus Vidalia Onion burgers that could have been contaminated with foreign materials. Last fall, Kenosha Beef International LTD, Kenosha, Wisc., recalled almost the same amount – nearly 90,000 lbs – of its pork sausage patty products that had been contaminated with materials, reportedly including small pieces of metal.
Smaller recalls still cause concerns and announcements, even if the public health risk is low. In February, a Hormel Foods Corp. plant in Tucker, GA., had to recall 450 lbs of Dinty Moore Beef Stew after inspectors found pieces of a broken flashlight in a production area and realized that 40 cases produced during the time of the accident had gone on through the distribution chain.
In addition to meat and poultry, other types of food products have been hit by the same kind of high profile recalls, from Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to Nestle’s Stouffers, Lean Cuisine and DiGiorno brands of frozen foods.
F.S.I.S. is regularly on the case of discovering, reporting on and alerting the public about contaminants in the food system. F.S.I.S. reported that “possible foreign matter detection” spurred recalls of 784,000 lbs of products in 2015. That number is expected to increase this year, given 2016 public issuances and recalls. F.S.I.S. has also announced possible contamination by foreign objects in several imported products, including chicken nuggets from Maxi Canada, Inc.
It’s not quite like looking for a needle in a haystack, but finding foreign material is akin to searching for a small piece of metal in a food product bound for human consumption, and that makes early detection imperative. F.S.I.S. has defined foreign contaminants as metal, plastic, rubber, glass, wood and steel that are not part of the animal. While naturally occurring in the animal, bone fragments can be problematic and pose a safety challenge as well.
Despite recalls that make headlines, the industry and processors have made strides in food safety tied to foreign contaminants. Keith Belk, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Center for Meat Safety & Quality in the Dept. of Animal Science at Colorado State Univ., says processors make detection a priority and have embraced technologies to prevent contaminants.
“Every plant does what it can," Mr. Belk said. "They take it very seriously, and almost all of them are G.F.S.I. plants and have gone through extensive foreign object controls that are well beyond what the federal government requires."
Mr. Belk said that recent situations in which F.S.I.S. put foreign contaminant detection more in the public discourse came about in part because of that agency’s discovery of new HACCP data and do not necessarily indicate an increase in recalls or ongoing industry-wide problems with contaminants.
Tools and technologies
To improve the safety of products and discover contaminants early in the process, meat and poultry companies deploy a variety of in-plant detection technologies, including X-ray, metal detectors and imaging systems.
X-ray technology is one of the most common tools in detecting foreign objects and bone fragments.
“Most industries now use X-ray technologies that can take the form of a full-line system or a smaller system,” Mr. Belk said. “The systems are consistently getting better. Like any machine, its worst day is today. The software is getting better, too.”
Mr. Tiernay agrees that X-ray technologies are instrumental in finding contaminants before they pose problems.
“Most food processors are recognizing the increased benefits of X-ray technology as it significantly improves overall metal detection capability and in addition detects soft contaminates such as stone, glass and some dense plastic," he said. "Along with virtual weighing, missing product makes single source X-ray inspection of these items a value proposition and a significant advantage."
Within the past year, Anritsu introduced a new high-sensitivity X-ray system, the XR75. In addition to precision-engineered contamination detection, the system pinpoints product shape defects and can check for production integrity.
“XR75 not only has a smaller foot print but the X-ray generator and sensor provide outstanding sensitivity at lower energy levels,” Mr. Tiernay said. “The low output X-ray generator reduces heat generation, eliminating the need for a cooling system, resulting in a 30% reduction of power consumption.”
The XR75 further refines Anritsu’s exclusive HD Imaging Technology capable of detecting as small as 0.4-mm diameter metal and 1.0-mm diameter glass and stone, according to Mr. Tiernay. Anritsu also offers Dual X-ray technologies that can analyze two different X-ray signals at once, to help processors distinguish between product and contaminant.
Mettler Toledo has made improvements, too, such as its new Safeline Opti PipeChek Plus X-ray inspection system for bone and metal contaminant detection and rejection. The system runs product through a closed pipeline, allowing full retention of both solids and liquids during inspection. The vacuum system allows whole muscle products to be pumped at rates between 12,000 to 32,000 lbs an hour.
In 2015, Heat and Control, Hayward, Calif., unveiled a new X-ray inspection system with a dual energy process that improves detection of low-density objects in overlapped products and can detect thin pieces of metal, glass, rubber, hard bones and other items in products with uneven surfaces.
Sesotec, Bartlett, Ill., recently developed a Raycon W X-ray system that identifies agglomerated, deformed, broken and missing items and features new control and image processing software that can simultaneously inspect up to four product lines running in parallel at up to 600 items per minute with different products being inspected in each lane.
In addition to new and upgraded X-ray equipment, some major suppliers are expanding their X-ray detection capability. A few months ago, Chicago-headquartered JBT Corp. acquired some assets of Novus X-Ray L.L.C., which provides advanced X-ray food inspection systems. At the time, JBT FoodTech president Steve Smith said, “Our customers want a contamination detection system that helps ensure food safety.”
Metal detection is another tool that processors use to find contaminants in raw and cooked products. Mettler Toledo recently debuted a Profile Advantage Pipeline Metal Detector for use in inspecting piped products for metal contamination. The system’s multi-simultaneous frequency technology allows for high sensitivity and reduces the “product effect” that can happen with moisture and temperature changes.
Other imaging systems can be installed at different points in the production process. Sesotec’s Liquiscan VF+, for example, was created to inspect viscous products like sausage meat at the outlet of vacuum fillers. If metal is detected, the conveying system stops.