Although foreign objects and natural bone fragments may be embedded in a product and escape visual discovery, there’s no hiding from the potential damage they can cause to a company and the reputation of its brands.
As Rob Tiernay, director of sales, North America for Elk Grove Village, Illinois-based Anritsu Infivis Inc., says, “Making sure that food products are safe and free of contamination is a huge concern for all food producers large or small. When contaminants such as metal, stone, plastic, glass or bone make their way into food product packages, they become a public health safety hazard and damage your brand image.”
Recalls bring problems with undetected objects into the open. “Food and poultry processors are continually seeking improved inspection equipment to detect metal and other contaminants in their products and prevent them from entering the marketplace,” said Camilo Sanchez, Metal Detection Product Manager for Tampa, Florida-based Mettler Toledo. “Their first goal is to keep their customers safe but accurate inspections also protect their brand from damage due to recalls and lawsuits.”
Over the past couple of years, many recalls have gone public – and some in a big way. This spring, a Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. plant in Waco, Texas, announced a 4.5 million-lb. recall of cooked chicken after inspectors found contamination by foreign material; in May, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) arm of the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) expanded the initial recall for a third time to include more products and production dates.
In mid-June, GNP Company, the Cold Spring, Minnesota-based producer of the Gold’n Plump poultry line, recalled more than 55,000 lbs. of chicken products that it said could be contaminated with “extraneous materials” listed as sand and black soil. Earlier this year, Foster Poultry Farms, Livingston, California, recalled more than 220,000 lbs. of frozen cooked chicken because of foreign materials. Processors of all types and sizes have experienced detection-related recalls. Huisken Meat Company, Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, recently issued a recall of nearly 90,000 lbs. of its Black Angus Vidalia Onion burgers that could have been contaminated with foreign materials. Last fall, Kenosha Beef International LTD, Kenosha, Wisconsin, recalled almost the same amount – nearly 90,000 lbs. – of its pork sausage patty products that had been contaminated with materials, reportedly including small pieces of metal.
Smaller recalls still cause concerns and announcements, even if the public health risk is low. In February, a Hormel Foods Corp. plant in Tucker, Georgia, had to recall 450 lbs. of Dinty Moore Beef Stew after inspectors found pieces of a broken flashlight in a production area and realized that 40 cases produced during the time of the accident had gone on through the distribution chain.
In addition to meat and poultry, other types of food products have been hit by the same kind of high profile recalls, from Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to Nestlé’s Stouffers, Lean Cuisine and DiGiorno brands of frozen foods.
FSIS is regularly on the case of discovering, reporting on and alerting the public about contaminants in the food system. FSIS reported that “possible foreign matter detection” spurred recalls of 784,000 lbs. of products in 2015; that number is expected to increase this year, given 2016 public issuances and recalls. FSIS has also announced possible contamination by foreign objects in several imported products, including chicken nuggets from Maxi Canada, Inc.
It’s not quite like looking for a needle in a haystack, but finding foreign material is akin to searching for a small piece of metal in a food product bound for human consumption, and that makes early detection imperative. FSIS has defined foreign contaminants as metal, plastic, rubber, glass, wood and steel that are not part of the animal. While naturally occurring in the animal, bone fragments can be problematic and pose a safety challenge as well.
Despite recalls that make headlines, the industry and processors have made strides in food safety tied to foreign contaminants. Keith Belk, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Center for Meat Safety & Quality in the Dept. of Animal Science at Colorado State Univ., says processors make detection a priority and have embraced technologies to prevent contaminants. “Every plant does what it can. They take it very seriously, and almost all of them are GFSI plants and have gone through extensive foreign object controls that are well beyond what the federal government requires,” he remarks. Belk notes that recent situations in which FSIS put foreign contaminant detection more in the public discourse came about in part because of that agency’s discovery of new HACCP data and do not necessarily indicate an increase in recalls or ongoing industry-wide problems with contaminants.
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