FlexXray Blog

Q&A: The Biggest Foreign Materials Problem in Food Processing

Posted by Chris Keith on Oct 23, 2020 12:15:02 PM
This article was originally published by Processing Magazine. To read the original posting of this article, click here.
Foreign material contamination affects all food and beverage processing plants and can lead to harmful impacts on business and consumer safety. It negatively affects food quality, safety and waste, and is harmful to a company’s bottom line and brand reputation with the potential to ignite PR crises and/or lawsuits. With limited cost-effective options for rework, many plants struggle to find a solution after flagging product due to potential foreign material contamination.

FlexXray recently corresponded with two food quality and safety experts who possess a window into how processing plants face one of the greatest challenges in the food industry today: resolving foreign material contamination.

Meet Kye Luker and Taylor Lewis, two food quality and safety professionals with years of experience in the field. Luker has spent the past 18 years in the food manufacturing industry, while Lewis has 10 years of experience. Both now work for a leading third-party inspection company that assists processing facilities and plants with third-party inspection of contaminated product. Luker is the VP of Operations, and Lewis is a Food Safety and Quality Manager. Luker and Lewis work with processing plants daily as part of a team that communicates results of inspection findings to customers primarily involved in food manufacturing. All of their customers are considered processing plants.

In an exclusive interview, Luker and Lewis share their experience and advice surrounding food quality and safety — specifically what can go wrong when it comes to foreign material contamination due to limitations with inline technology and beyond.

Q. What is the greatest risk food processing plants face when dealing with product on hold due to potential foreign material contamination?

Kye Luker: The greatest risk, in my experience, is time. Food manufacturing has done a great job over the last 20 years to become more efficient, getting as close to “just in time” as possible. With shelf space at a premium from the retail setting all the way back to ingredient production and packaging, processing facilities must make decisions around on-hold product to avoid downstream fulfillment outages immediately.

Taylor Lewis: Another one of the greatest risks to product on hold due to potential foreign material contamination, in addition to time, is the release of adulterated product into commerce. No company wants to find a failure in their food safety and quality system by the final consumers of their product. In addition to the safety of individual consumers of product, the costs of a recall are far greater than the logistical costs of withdrawing product. The devaluation of brand name, integrity and customer confidence can drive lower sales for much longer than the time it takes to remove product from commerce. Being armed with accurate information regarding the scope of a foreign material event is paramount when making hold/release decisions for these products.

Q. What are the most common foreign material contaminants in the processing plant setting?

Kye Luker: Metal. It's just the nature of modern manufacturing. There are thousands of ways to introduce metal into food products, and manufacturers work diligently every day to ensure that it does not enter the product stream. But, based on the number of mechanical steps involved in processed foods, it is just a matter of time before there is a metal incident. With good detection mechanisms, effective bracketing of on-hold product is easier now than ever. But due to processing speeds, most detectors are not capable of finding small sizes within their efforts to recover product.

Taylor Lewis: I agree with Kye. In my experience in the food processing industry, I have found that the most common foreign material is metal. Due to the nature of food processing, there will be metal-to-metal contact. Whether it be blades from grinders and extruders, or pumps, paddles and augers, the opportunities for metal-to-metal contact is very real. The inclusion of metal in product is a constant threat to food safety if not managed appropriately.

Q. What is your advice to a food processing plant that is currently facing a batch of on-hold product?

Kye Luker: I would additionally advise that you ensure that your containment steps are buttoned up and you have everything “suspect” properly bracketed. Next, ensure that you have a dedicated team focusing on root-cause analysis to prevent the issue from recurring. Finally, evaluate the time and cost-benefit transparently about using a third party to help you in recovery so you can get back to focusing on the next batch of good product you are going to make.

Taylor Lewis: My advice to a food processing plant facing a batch of on-hold product would be to fully consider all options with the priority of keeping non-conforming product out of commerce. Before deciding to shut down production to rework/re-inspect, or “cutting losses” and deciding to condemn product, consider the use of third-party inspection. The speed, efficiency and accuracy of results yielded by third-party inspection can allow orders to be met, and correct root causes to be identified helping to prevent future occurrences. All of this takes place without an impact to production.

Q. When should a food processing plant rework internally?

Kye Luker: If you “catch” the issue early on before the product gets to the final processing stages, it probably makes more sense for a manufacturer to address the issue internally. Detection steps, though, are typically only addressed once the product is in its final form and rework is a tenuous exercise at that time. Modern detectors — as advanced as we are with technology — are still limited due to product and SKU diversity and the speeds of manufacturing. As a processing facility tries to increase a modern detector’s sensitivity to focus on different types and sizes of foreign material, false reject rates increase exponentially.

Taylor Lewis: Processing plants are designed to produce, not to rework. I have never worked at a processing facility where space was not a limiting factor. In the design of processing facilities, it makes the most financial sense to use space available to maximize production and focus on the elimination of hazards rather than the rework of hazards. Equipment design is optimized to work at its best when running inline at line speeds. While this is great for production, it can have difficulties when a foreign material is potentially present and rework is necessary. In my experience, many inline machines are unable to detect product inside packaging. Added packaging costs and the potential for additional foreign material inclusion with accidental re-introduction of packaging into the product is another threat to product safety when reworking product internally.
It is also time-inefficient to rework/re-inspect a product with inline systems. Not only are there labor costs, lost production and potential for foreign material inclusion, there is also potential for loss of product quality, as many times product is opened from packaging and exposed to potential temperature abuse during the slow rework process. For ready-to-eat items, the double handling of exposed product can be particularly challenging as many items do not have other forms of microbial control once product has been removed from packaging.

5. When should a food processing plant partner with a third-party inspection service?

Kye Luker: I think everyone involved in food manufacturing understands the nature of mechanical operations and that eventually something is going to break or fail or go wrong that is going to cause a problem. Creating relationships with good vendors that can support you when things go awry is beneficial even if the need or frequency is not substantial. It is like a fire extinguisher; you hope to never use third-party inspection, but it's best to have it available, know where it's at and maintain it just in case.
Third-party inspection is not a replacement for your own in-line detection. It is just different. It is a service that can slow the inspection process down to gain detection levels that otherwise are not achievable or repeatable in a manufacturing setting. This service is also provided by personnel who are focused daily on inspection tasks alone.

Taylor Lewis: Third-party inspection services can help plant management make confident and accurate decisions around inspecting finished goods to determine their suitability to enter commerce. Third-party inspection processes are optimized to see the smallest level of foreign material inclusion in the most efficient manner. At the company where I work, we don’t even need to remove product from its packaging to inspect product, reducing packaging cost for our customers, increasing the speed that we can inspect, eliminating the possibility of unintentional inclusion of packaging in products inspected, preventing temperature abuse of inspected product and eliminating the need to unpackage ready-to-eat product where it can potentially encounter additional microbiological hazards. Third-party inspection services are not a substitute for an adequate in-line inspection system for food processors. The flexibility that a third-party service provides allows machines to be run at speeds to optimize detection levels at the sacrifice of line speeds needed to achieve profitable production in-house.

6. Why would a food processing plant not take advantage of third-party inspection?

Kye Luker: For as many improvements that food manufacturing has made over the last 20 years, it can still be difficult to break some habits or long-held beliefs. The more abstract reason I often think about is that people do not want to share their failures. Some facilities might think, “If we take care of this in the plant, no matter how expensive the rework or reinspection process is, then at least we keep this in-house.” As mentioned before, that way of thinking diverts attention away from a processing facility’s primary skillset: manufacturing food.

Taylor Lewis: In my experience, there have been many instances when food processing plants do not reach out for the help of third-party inspection when they should. I believe that food processing plants have the tendency to overestimate their own capabilities while simultaneously not fully understanding the capabilities of third-party inspection. The food manufacturing industry is full of many intelligent, well-educated individuals with many years of experience. This has led to many great innovations and allowed the industry to keep up with the increased demand for safe and quality food for an ever-growing population. Unfortunately, this has also created a framework where many food processors can be confined by their own collective experience. Not fully knowing or understanding the capabilities of third-party inspection leads many decision-makers to not even consider third-party inspection when encountering a product hold scenario.