X-ray is the emerging standard for food-safety inspection

I was munching a mouthful of oatmeal one morning this week when my tongue felt something hard. “An uncooked kernel?” I thought, and I considered swallowing, then thought better of it. To my surprise, it was a jagged piece of glass, 5/16 in. long and 3/16 in. at its highest point.

Coincidentally, the day before I had finished writing a story for the May edition of Food Processing on inspection technology. Over the last 15 years, quality assurance tools have improved dramatically, and the industry is much more diligent in screening for contaminants to guard their brands and the public. Metal detectors are ubiquitous, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my oatmeal container passed through one on the way to a casepacker. I don’t know if an X-ray unit would have found the glass, but I do know a metal detector wouldn’t and didn’t.

Promotional material from one vendor pitches metal detectors as a compliance requirement, suggesting Subsection E of the good manufacturing practices requires them. That sounded iffy, so I called up part 11 of the Code of Federal Regulations governing food processing. Sure enough, screening for metal is explicitly mentioned. Glass, bone and plastic are covered under “other extraneous material.” The regulations were written decades ago, of course, and presumably broken crowns and chipped teeth were a big concern for the people who drafted the law. From my perspective, chomping on a rusty piece of tramp metal is preferable to ingesting a glass fragment.

I first saw X-ray inspection units for packaged foods at a trade show a dozen years ago. They were big, complicated, pricey machines, and show visitors breezed by the booth without breaking stride, with one exception: baby food manufacturers. Their products still were packaged in small glass jars, and companies were paranoid about the consequences of a mother finding glass splinters in the strained prunes. For good reason: it's a retorted product, and a tiny fault in the jar could easily result in glass fragments. For those processors, the age of plastic containers couldn't come soon enough; in the meantime, X-ray was a lifeline against enraged mothers and dead babies.

Today, X-ray is where the end-of-line inspection action is. Bob Ries, Thermo Fisher's product manager for metal detection and X-ray inspection, estimates metal detectors still outsell X-ray units by a factor of two or three, "but the X-ray market is growing much faster" and will surpass metal detectors within 10 years, he predicts. A decade ago, metal detectors outsold X-rays by a factor of 20:1.

Ries's firm rolled out its latest X-ray detection system this week. It doesn't exploit any new elements of the electromagnetic spectrum, but it does address manufacturing's mantra of faster, better, cheaper. The price point still is double that of a metal detector, Ries allows, but it's easier to set up, delivers greater detection sensitivity, and should provide 10-plus years of service.

I won't embarrass the folks who made my glass-contaminated oatmeal, other than to say they're conscientious fellow Great Lakers, some of who I know personally and respect. But I will manually inspect the container's remaining oatmeal and look forward to the day when food processors up their game to the best available food-inspection technology.