FlexXray Blog

The Most Contaminated Foods — and What’s Contaminating Them

Posted by Chris Keith on Sep 9, 2019 9:20:00 AM


Contamination of food by foreign materials continues to be a problem for food manufacturers. While the first half of 2019 saw a dramatic increase in recalls, a deeper dive into those recalls gives a closer look at the most contaminated foods as well as provides insight into the most common vehicles for contamination in the food industry.

A recent report by Stericycle Expert Solutions, which releases a quarterly Recall Index across a number of industries, including food and beverage, indicates that, as in the previous year, 2019 started off with an uptick in the amount of food recalled.

However, for both the FDA and the USDA, there were fewer numbers of recalls, although the number of units recalled was up. The report allows certain conclusions to be drawn based on Stericycle's findings, which could help food manufacturers avoid their own instances of food contamination in the future.

Which Food Is Most Contaminated?

Since the FDA and USDA regulate different types of food, it’s important to be able to look at data provided by both entities to get the true picture. The USDA numbers only include meat, poultry and egg products, while the FDA is responsible for regulating other types of food.

When it comes to meat, the top foods recalled broke down as follows for Q1 2019:

most recalled foods q1 2019

Although the number of USDA recalls was down 7.1%, the 39 recalls mean that 2019 started with more recalls than were seen in 12 of the previous 14 quarters. And the 1.4 million pounds recalled by the USDA noted a 91.6% drop in the amount of food recalled the previous quarter — but that amount was still higher than three of the previous five quarters.

In other, non-meat categories, the leading sources of food recalled by the FDA were prepared foods, produce, baked goods and dairy. 


When analyzed in terms of the amount of food recalled, prepared foods were responsible for the largest percentage by far, accounting for 98.1% of the food recalled. Of that number, 95.8% was attributed to one large, single recall.

The actual number of FDA recalls dropped 36.5% in the first quarter of 2019, down to less than 100 recalls — the second-lowest number since the third quarter of 2015. However, the number of food units recalled spiked 67.2%, to 79 million units, which is higher than four of the past five quarters.

Foreign materials tied with undeclared allergens as the reason for the FDA recalls, with each responsible for 30.8% of the recalls.

foreign materials are the top cause of usda recalled pounds

Foreign materials were the top cause of USDA recalled pounds, accounting for 37.9% of recalled food items.

The most common foreign material during this quarter was plastic, and it was found in 40% of the recalled pounds.

Where Food Contaminants Originate

Physical hazards come from many different sources; they can originate in the field, in the manufacturing process or in the packaging process.

According to Food Safety Magazine, some of the most common physical hazards found in food, and their origin sources, are as follows:

  • Metal: Machinery, fields
  • Plastic: Fields, packing materials, broken utensils
  • Glass: Broken bottles/jars, light bulbs
  • Wood: Fields, pallets, boxes
  • Stones: Fields
  • Bone: Fields, improper processing


In addition to these common contaminants, rubber is another foreign material that is being seen more frequently in food contamination incidents.

Both plastic and rubber are found in production facilities, which makes them a growing challenge for manufacturers.

In the U.S., the most common sources of recalls from plastic contamination are chicken and bakery products. Together, they account for more than 60% of U.S. food recalls due to plastic contamination.

What to Do About Foreign Material Contamination

As foods become more processed and use more ingredients, food manufacturers have to be increasingly vigilant about the types of inspection that is used to look for foreign materials.

While some of these contaminants, such as wood or stone, come from the original environment of the plant or animal, many of the more common types of contaminants — such as plastic, metal and glass — are occurring as the result of the processing required to make the food.

Increased automation in processing plants has created more opportunities to introduce contaminants into the food, creating greater need for inspection and oversight.

Having multiple ways to inspect food and detect contaminants throughout the manufacturing process is one way to prevent contaminants from reaching consumers.

Filters and screens, magnets and metal detectors used early in the manufacturing process can help prevent contaminants from being included in the final product. For example, metal detection used on dry ingredients before they are blended into the other ingredients can help find fragments early in the process, which saves costs by keeping that contaminant from being blended in with other ingredients and tainting the production run.

X-ray inspection of the final product can then help detect any contaminants that might have been introduced during the manufacturing process or can help find foreign materials (such as plastic) that might not have been detected initially.

Finally, in the event that contamination is suspected, a third-party X-ray source such as FlexXray can examine the product more carefully and at a slower pace than the production line allows.

Learning how to manage the threat of food contamination is a challenge for every food manufacturer, but it’s one that FlexXray can help make more manageable. Because we specialize in detecting foreign materials, we can help ensure your brand's integrity and provide you with the peace of mind that comes from knowing your customers are receiving a clean, safe product.

food recalls lawsuits food safety x ray inspection

Topics: X-ray Food Inspection, Processed Foods, Recalls and Lawsuits