During the early 20th century, food products were predominantly locally sourced and most often consumed seasonally. Since then, developments in technology have improved the shelf life of various foods, and progressive shipping methods have contributed to the de-seasonalization of global food consumption. Products once only available seasonally are now in stock year-round, meaning consumers can purchase them as they please, and in turn, revenue actually parallels demand.
Why does that matter? This pattern holds true industrywide. Technology advances. Consequences result. Consumers respond. Bottom lines move—for better or worse.
The modernization of technology continues to drive an unprecedented era in the food manufacturing space. One unintended consequence: the rising prevalence of foreign material contamination. At every step in the manufacturing process—from production to transportation to distribution—food products are only becoming more exposed to potential foreign material contaminants.
Defining foreign material contamination
Foreign material contamination has not been a watchword within the food manufacturing industry for all that long—the focus has mostly been microbiological issues. Over the past two decades, however, foreign material contamination has been increasingly problematic; as plants continue to modernize, the food supply continues to globalize, economics improve and consumers become more aware of the problem.
According to FDA and USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), “Material that is not supposed to be in your product—bone, plastic, rubber or otherwise—is foreign material. It is a threat to both your reputation and your profits.”
The root of the problem
As those in the industry know, modernization in plants generally equates to increased automation and mechanization of processes to create cost-saving efficiencies. These innovations help food producers maintain or improve production outputs and margins by reducing manual labor costs. That said, they carry a certain set of risks—particularly, the risk of foreign material contamination.
One of the most common sources of foreign material contamination is in-plant machinery that has broken, eroded or failed in some fashion. Risk analyses have been performed time and again, and the results are conclusive: from the reception of raw materials to the final packaging of finished products, the risk for foreign material contamination is present. Even advancements such as protective packaging—enacted to enhance product quality—carry an underlying potential for contamination.
Mitigating foreign material concerns
In the face of foreign material contamination concerns, producers should be keen on finding mitigation tools fit for their operations. Advanced technology undoubtedly presents a risk. That said, when used creatively, that very same technology may be a response method in and of itself.
The modernization of plants has introduced additional critical control point (CCP) technology—like metal detection and X-ray—designed to detect commonly encountered materials for food safety purposes. This has enabled producers to find more foreign material, but it is only one piece of the puzzle.
What are manufacturers to do? Modern industry best practices include the following:
• Utilizing third-party companies that creatively use technology and labor
• Following cleaning recommendations for new and existing equipment
• Maintaining preventive maintenance procedures
• Performing regular inspections on equipment and labor practices
Expanding the foreign material component of a company’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan should include verification and validation steps that could entail utilizing additional processes and equipment or using qualified third-party inspection companies to help confirm the process is working the way a business wants and expects it to work. As with many things in life, modern advancements in food technology have proven they can be both friend and foe.
With more than 35 years of experience in the food safety space, Kurt Westmoreland is chief commercial officer of FlexXray, an X-ray inspection and recovery service for the food, nutraceutical and personal care industries. Throughout his career, Westmoreland has been an active member of numerous industry associations, building a reputation as a trusted commercial and technical leader who ensures clients get the ROI, answers and support needed to manage and improve their food safety and services programs.