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Detection Looks to Take Another Technological Leap

May 15, 2024
As food and beverage processors search for ways to eliminate foreign materials from their product streams, technology continues to offer new ways to detect contaminants.

In a perfect world, foreign material contamination of food and beverage products would be a foreign concept. Packages would contain only the food or drink listed, with no surprises for the end consumer.

However, a perfect world this is not. Equipment breaks, items fall into the product stream and sometimes the most miniscule contaminant finds its way into the product. Unfortunately, this happens more frequently than anyone in the industry would prefer, as foreign material can injure consumers, force costly recalls and damage a brand’s reputation.

Food and beverage processors need to be vigilant, keeping detection and inspection equipment focused on the end product while developing programs and standards for minimizing foreign material access to product to begin with.

Looking over the recall notices from both the USDA and the FDA in the past 12 months, nearly 20 notices have been posted for products with some sort of possible foreign material contamination. All sorts of products, from chicken soup dumplings to chocolate chip cookie dough to whey protein bars have been pegged, but ground meat products, particularly sausages, have been hit hardest in terms of frequency.

The types of contaminants can vary significantly, to include metal (both ferrous and non-ferrous), plastic, wood, rocks, bones, etc. Over the past year, plastic seems to have been the biggest culprit. Contaminants can come from outside the plant in the raw material supply chain or inside the plant via production equipment breaking down or something falling into the product stream.

Think it doesn’t happen? The chicken soup dumplings mentioned above were recalled by a California processor in March (approximately 61,839 lbs. of product) because they may have been contaminated by “hard plastic from a permanent marker pen,” USDA said. And the whey protein bars? A small batch was recalled for potential contamination by “disposable hairnet, shrink wrap and parchment paper,” according to the FDA recall notice.

A matter of material

More often than not, wear and tear on the personal protective equipment or the machinery itself eventually causes small shards of metal or plastic to wind up in the product. Finding these tiny bits of material becomes more challenging depending on shape, density and composition.

“It’s still challenging to see soft plastics, some small pieces of bone/cartilage and other materials based on material composition,” explains David Fryar, director of food safety and quality assurance for Butterball LLC.

As detection technology has improved, so has the ability to find more foreign materials, Fryar confirms. He says the company uses more X-ray systems now than it had in the past.

“X-ray technology has allowed Butterball team members to identify materials that were invisible to us before,” Fryar says. “[It] has allowed Butterball’s technicians to recognize opportunities that we didn’t see before with just metal detection.”

A multi-hurdle approach can improve a processor’s chances of catching issues before the products leave the facility. Juan DeVillena, senior vice president of quality assurance and food safety at Wayne-Sanderson Farms, marvels at how hard the industry has worked to drive foreign material out of product.

“We’re not here as an industry sitting, waiting for something to happen,” he says. “There’s a group of highly educated, motivated professionals and highly efficient professionals across the industry going above and beyond to make sure that the product is free of foreign material.”

The equipment has evolved, too, from metal detection to X-ray and onward to hyperspectral imaging — a technology that has DeVillena excited about the prospects.

“The best way I can describe it is, metal detection and X-ray are like looking through a window with the blinds in the horizontal position, not shut, but you can still see the lines,” he explains. “Hyperspectral imaging though, is when you roll the blinds all the way up and now you can see right through the glass.”

Metal detection can detect ferrous iron-content materials well, and X-ray goes another step further with its ability to detect stainless steel, glass and bones (at a certain density) in the product stream. Hyperspectral imaging, DeVillena says, can detect plastic, Teflon, wood and other materials, but it cannot see through product.

“Hyperspectral imaging can only detect at a one-layer level, so the pieces have to be individuals. You cannot look at the product in a bag,” he explains. For product in a bag or a box, metal detection and X-ray are still needed to find foreign materials.

Until someone develops a machine that can do all that detection in one, DeVillena says, processors would need to use some combination of the three technologies to be most confident in a clean product stream. Of course, that would be pricey and can get complicated in terms of determining the best position for each technology on the lines.

“In some cases, it makes sense to have a piece metal detector, X-ray and hyperspectral imaging, and then a subsequent bag metal detector and box metal detector,” he adds. “But it gets complicated as you complicate the layout of your operation, and if you have 18, 20 lines, you could be talking about putting in 60 different pieces of equipment.”

Eliminating contaminants first

Both Butterball and Wayne-Sanderson — like many processors — have taken formal steps throughout their operations to minimize or eliminate foreign materials in their processing plants, reducing the number of rejects on their lines.

Fryar says Butterball is “laser-focused on efforts to reduce the opportunity for foreign materials to enter the product stream.” Some of the initiatives the company has implemented include eliminating plastic liners wherever possible and removing wooden pallets from processing areas.

Employees walk the floor consistently looking to identify situations that could create a foreign material issue (such as tools being out of place, for example), and all levels of the organization are involved in these efforts through the company’s formal continuous improvement process.

Wayne-Sanderson has an extensive foreign material prevention program as well, starting with its incoming inspection, which checks raw materials, boxes, pallets and bags before they enter the processing areas. The company does not allow any glass in its processing plants, DeVillena says. Keeping everyone accountable for their role is crucial, and Wayne-Sanderson emphasizes that point and tests its program.

“Any tool that comes onto the floor has to be accounted for, and there are multiple checks during the day and a reconciliation of tools at the end of the shift,” he explains. “There are also walkthroughs and what we call ‘Blitz,’ where we actually take a tool from the floor to see how long it takes to get reported. We test our system in different ways to make sure that there are no failures.”

Easing the burden on the equipment and knowing the technology’s limitations — whether metal detection, X-ray or hyperspectral imaging — can help processors build confidence in their foreign material detection program. Innovation will continue to help address the shortcomings as it has thus far.

DeVillena sees much promise in the vision technology that is on the cusp, and believes hyperspectral imaging is just scratching the surface of what it can do for food and beverage processors.

“The new thing is going to be AI and vision systems, and I think in the near future, five or 10 years from now, we're going to be inundated with vision systems, regular cameras or hyperspectral imaging cameras,” he concludes. “I truly believe that we’re going to get to where, through a set of vision systems, we will overcome some of these roadblocks around the limited detection zone of the image.”

About the Author

Andy Hanacek | Senior Editor

Andy Hanacek has covered meat, poultry, bakery and snack foods as a B2B editor for nearly 20 years, and has toured hundreds of processing plants and food companies, sharing stories of innovation and technological advancement throughout the food supply chain. In 2018, he won a Folio:Eddie Award for his unique "From the Editor's Desk" video blogs, and he has brought home additional awards from Folio and ASBPE over the years. In addition, Hanacek led the Meat Industry Hall of Fame for several years and was vice president of communications for We R Food Safety, a food safety software and consulting company.

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