Reducing Foreign-Object Contamination in the Food Industry

Presenters/Authors
Agriculture Building

Introduction

Product recalls in the food industry are nothing new; however, a recent spike in foreign-object contamination in meat and poultry is cause for some concern. Recalls of this nature can be very costly for food manufacturers. Direct costs for the price of the product plus the transportation and notification costs are the most obvious. On top of that, the indirect costs of potential litigation, fines, stock value decline and lost sales due to a negative public perception in the safety of your manufacturing operations can have a serious effect as well.

Recalls aren’t isolated to the meat and poultry industry. Issues of this nature can happen in just about any type of food manufacturing facility these days as processes have become much more automated and use modern, complex equipment that comes into contact with the product on a more frequent and consistent basis. Add in the “human element” of risk and the chances of contamination increase exponentially if proper procedures, maintenance and other factors are not in place to guard against foreign-object issues.

Causes

There can be many root causes for contamination and because machinery is heavily involved with the manufacturing process, contaminants from mixers, slicers and grinders, for example, pose the biggest risk as metal shavings and shards could enter the product stream. Plastics also can pose a similar risk as machine guards, guides and other components in the manufacturing process wear down over time and become brittle. Employees represent a potential risk as well, as gloves and other protective clothing can rip and create unwanted debris, pens or markers can be misplaced or dropped and utensils can be lost—all of which can ultimately find their way into the product. Inadequate training, lack of quality and safety controls and simply employees taking shortcuts also can play a large role in creating contaminants.

Preventative Measures

Food manufacturers can vary widely in shape and size, and depending on the type of product being manufactured, some solutions may not be as effective in certain situations as they are in others. In short, there is no “one size fits all” approach or “silver bullet” that can mitigate or even eliminate foreign-object contamination issues. Rather, our experience in the industry tells us that a solid mix of the following preventative measures, coupled with strong enforcement and consistent accountability, can be a winning recipe for keeping clear of foreign-object contaminant issues.

  • Training – Education helps workers understand the importance of food safety, identify where issues can occur in the manufacturing process and know how to prevent them from happening. Training and retraining should occur on a regular basis, especially as new machines or new products are introduced, or as existing processes change. Training must be a requirement and not an option.
     
  • Pre-Operation Inspections – Consider implementing a standard operating procedure that requires machine and station operators to examine and inspect areas that could contaminate the product prior to starting the manufacturing process. Simple steps such as making sure the workstations are clean and free of clutter or pre-inspection for loose bolts or screws on machines due to heavy use and vibrations can help mitigate contamination issues.
     
  • Labor Planning – Manufacturing plants can be extremely busy and fast-paced work environments. As volume increases, run rates climb and batch sizes grow larger, these jobs demand more from workers and raise the chances of contamination. The risk here is that a labor shortage could occur, which could lead to overworked employees taking shortcuts to meet the production demands. As your operations grow, take a close look at your capacity and labor requirements when scaling operations to ensure a proper balance is achieved.
     
  • Equipment Maintenance – Lean manufacturing teaches us that an ounce of prevention can go a long way toward mitigating equipment breakdowns and production lapses by implementing Total Preventative Maintenance (TPM) programs (sometimes referred to as Total Productive Maintenance). One of the added benefits of a TPM program is that it can assist with preventing foreign-object contamination issues as well. Consider a TPM program that continuously examines wear points on machines, ensures proper alignment of devices and uses data and statistical analysis of run time to predict when components will fail and even when blades need changed or sharpened before they contaminate product with metal shards or shavings. While the cost of a TPM program can be somewhat expensive upfront, it can pale in comparison to the cost of a full product recall.
     
  • Internal Audits – There are a host of federal guidelines and regulatory agencies that can help food manufacturers steer clear of food safety hazards. Good Manufacturing Practice is the baseline system to ensure food safety, quality and legal requirements are met and can be a component of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP). Manufacturers should consider conducting periodic “self-audits” and a “hazard analysis” of their operations to examine known or potential areas where foreign objects could contaminate the product. This added level of oversight can help manufacturers take a proactive approach to reducing contamination, especially when new machines and new products are introduced and when plant configurations change.
     
  • Technology – There are various forms of technology in use today such as metal detectors, magnets and X-ray machines that can be used to identify contamination issues during or after operations. Each form of technology has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and each will require some level of capital investment to procure. Similar to TPM, the upfront cost of having an added layer of protection can more than pay for itself if it prevents a catastrophic recall.
     
  • Crisis Plan – While food manufacturers never intend to have a foreign-object contamination issue, having a plan that addresses the “what if?” is highly recommended as it can help manufacturers be proactive and plan for the critical steps that will be required with the legal, insurance, public relations, financial and other responses that come with a recall. Planning for these issues and having a transparent and sensible response can help win back customer trust as well. Drilling on these plans is a must. A simple “table top” exercise can assess the effectiveness of your plan and identify gaps that could help prevent contaminated product from getting into the hands of the consumer.

Conclusion

While these preventative measures can assist with identifying and preventing foreign-object contamination issues in most cases, the chances of completely eliminating them is small as further processing makes them harder to detect in some cases. Still, we recommend food manufacturers continue to focus on preventative programs and measures along with the requisite level of investments to avoid costly recalls related to foreign-object contamination issues.

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