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Bulk Packaged Products: Balancing Quantity and Quality

August 26, 2014

The sight of people pushing overflowing shopping carts to the car, packed with bulk purchases, has become an increasingly familiar one around the world. People are not just buying for today and tomorrow; they are buying for next week or next month even. In doing so, they can make better use of their household expenditure because bulk prices per unit are considerably less than when buying single units. They also make more efficient use of their time, with fewer trips to the supermarket required.
    Retailers have adapted to this trend and are using it to their own advantage. In your local shopping center you can see this through an increase in the amount of dollar and/or 99-cent shops, and a rise in the number of discount warehouses, which are open to the public as well as businesses. Multiples of the same product in a single pack are available to make it easier for those consumers who prefer buying that way. Densely packed bulk products can save packaging, transportation, and handling costs, as well as warehouse and shelf space for the retailer.
    The bulk buying trend has been partly attributed to higher demand for convenience foods and pre-prepared take-out meals in both the retail, institutional, and restaurant sectors. From a consumer’s point of view, convenience and cost are the two main drivers. But when does the question of quality feature in the decision making process? It might seem like a simple assumption to make that quality will be less important to a bulk-buying consumer, but it is an assumption that should be avoided. Food and beverage quality has many dimensions, and while a consumer understands that the finest cut of meat costs more, they also expect high standards in lesser priced options. Further for institutional and restaurant sectors buying in bulk is a necessity and not an option with attention to quality and food safety critical to meeting their needs. In short, bulk buying consumers of all types still value the quality of the product.
    It is here that food manufacturers and packagers need to be on top of their game. They must apply the same stringent quality standards to bulk products as they would to individual packs, both for the purposes of ensuring product excellence and consumer safety, and to comply with stringent food safety legislation on such matters. This means investing in production line inspection technology to identify and remove any contaminants from the manufacturing and packaging processes, in order to protect the integrity of the product and package.

Sensitive to Bulk Needs
Bulk products set their own challenges for product inspection. Traditional product inspection systems find it harder to detect contaminants within densely packed bulk products. What is required is higher sensitivity of contaminant detection, and advanced x-ray systems. Inspection systems with Material Discrimination X-ray (MDX) technology can deliver this, as well as carry out multiple additional quality parameter inspections simultaneously. For example, the x-ray technology can check seal integrity and weight/fill levels, plus identify missing or broken components. By using dual energy technology, MDX discriminates materials by chemical composition, thereby clearly identifying contaminants within busy x-ray images.
    It is not necessary to have a large x-ray machine for bulk inspection. Many modern machines have a small footprint, yet can still handle large bulk packaged products. However, it is important that the technology is used to maximum capacity and advantage. Therefore, it needs to be situated in the best place on the production line to have the most effect - which is usually the point where contamination is most likely. In some cases this maybe prior to the packaging line where an x-ray machine or pipeline system might be the most suitable choice. The best way to identify the right location is to conduct a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) audit.
    Typically, the beginning of a processing line is identified as a key critical control point (CCP), since this is where raw ingredients from a variety of sources - each with a different contaminant risk - can first be inspected with x-ray technology. Placing an inspection device here also means that foreign bodies and other problems can be detected earlier in the manufacturing process and removed with less cost than would be the case if a final product is found to be contaminated. Plus, once the risk is identified, the manufacturer has the opportunity to rectify this and prevent further contaminated products. Furthermore, early x-ray inspection of foreign bodies reduces the danger of expensive damage to downstream processing equipment by undetected contaminants such as stones, metal splinters, glass shards, and calcified bones.
    Additional CCPs are often placed after each mixing and cooking stage in production, where again it is easier - and potentially less expensive - than identifying foreign bodies further down the line when packaging material may mask contamination. On the bulk product packaging line itself, damage to items such as metal cans, foil trays, glass jars, plastic bottles, and other similar packaging formats, can introduce further risk of contamination through fragments getting into the product. Identifying CCPs and placing x-ray machinery in these locations reduces this risk and also enables manufacturers to carry out additional quality checks, such as ensuring that there are no missing or damaged products inside the packaging. Simultaneously, the same technology can also measure the gross mass of filled packages, and is therefore able to detect any over- or under-filling, resulting in cost savings and enhanced quality of the finished product.
It is also common to establish a CCP right at the end of the packaging line, where any foreign body contamination that has occurred in production, packaging, and final sealing might still be detected. Producers should be careful not to make this the only CCP with x-ray technology on the entire production line however, as the cost of having to reject packaged bulk goods far outweighs that of rejection of raw material.

X-Ray Vision
Consumers choose to buy bulk packaged products for a variety of reasons including cost and convenience, and such buying behavior is only likely to increase in the future. Retailers - and the manufacturers that supply them - must respond with suitable products to meet this demand. Buying in bulk does not mean being happy to accept sub-standard goods. However, there can be no relaxation of standards of quality, and goods supplied must comply with local and international food safety standard legislation and guidelines.
It is imperative that food and beverage producers approach the bulk market with the same degree of commitment and discipline as they would for individual products. As such, they must carry out a HACCP audit to establish appropriate CCPs along the production line where contaminants can be detected and removed, and overall product quality ensured. Placing advanced x-ray inspection technology at these points not only enables them to identify contamination problems at an early stage, but also allows them to carry out simultaneous quality checks such as mass measurement, missing components, fill levels, and packaging defects. Such comprehensive inspection procedures are of benefit to both the heavily-laden shopper and the entire supply chain.   
      Kyle Thomas is strategic business unit manager at Eagle Product Inspection (Tampa, FL). For more information, call 877-379-1670 or visit www.eaglepi.com.

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