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How to Avoid Metal Contamination in Ready Meal Production

July 8, 2019
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Ever-changing consumer tastes mean that most products today contain several ingredients and flavorings sourced from multiple suppliers. Ready meal manufacturers are challenged with demands for transparency in sourcing ingredients to create tasty, shortcut recipes, while maintaining food safety across their production lines.

To avoid financial and reputational damage caused by contaminants, metal detection specialist Fortress Technology stipulates the risks that might make food operators with multiple preparation and cooking processes more vulnerable and how to avoid a costly recall.

In the U.S., sales of ready-to-eat meals are expected to grow at a CAGR rate of approximately 6% from the year 2016 to 2022. According to statistics highlighted in Reuters’ Ready to Eat Meals 2019 Report, the market’s rapid growth is led by a fast-paced lifestyle and consumers seeking health-based precooked meals.

Manufacturers are now facing new challenges due to increasingly complex supply chains. Evolving issues regarding product recall regulations present growing risks to food manufacturers across Europe. When sourcing ingredients for ready meals from multiple suppliers, manufacturers must consider the finances, time, and manpower required to devote to effective risk management.

Greater pressure means food safety standards are being compromised. Based on recent figures from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the total number of food recalls in the U.S. increased by 10% over the past five years. A sharp increase in metal contaminants continues to take prevalence.

Risks on the Rise
In 2019, multiple high-profile cases have gained traction in the media. Among them Tyson Foods recalling 69,000 lb of frozen, ready-to-eat chicken strips that may have been contaminated with metal. Vienna Beef underwent a similar recall situation with 2000 lb of hot dogs.

The rising percentage of recalls implies regulations and current systems for food safety aren’t totally aligned with changes in increasingly automated food production. Meanwhile consumers are more connected and social media adds greater pressure on food manufacturers to list ingredient sources.

In 2016, 39% of survey participants questioned by the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC) implied that they would switch to a brand that provides more in-depth product information. In a repeat survey in 2018, the number of people requesting this level of ingredient transparency had virtually doubled to 75%.

Brand reputation is more important than ever. Cutting corners on safety could be an expensive mistake in the long term. Some metal detector equipment manufacturers highlight the significance of strategic planning when selecting food inspection checkpoints to optimize detection lines.

Given that investment in inspection systems by food factories is predicted to continue, risk professionals should constantly revisit inspection protocols and hypothetical contamination scenarios to look at potential holes in the security chain. From a practical perspective, food processing inspection risks should be reviewed every 12 months as part of a defined HACCP assessment.

Convenience without Contaminants
Convenience meals typically have more production processes and ingredients introduced than any other food item. As a result, metal contamination risks are increased.

With an average ready meal, there can be more than eight production steps between sourcing ingredients to packing, and more than five different product components in each product. This figure is increased in complex recipe formulations, such as health-focused ready meals.

It is advisable to take a step back and look at each processing point, the equipment that’s being used, and every possible contamination scenario. Revisit this constantly. Don’t wait for a crisis to hit before developing your recall response.

Most reputable external companies supplying ingredients will typically have their own codes of practice. However, the more extensive a supply chain and the further inspection equipment is pushed up the line, the greater the chance that metal fragments will go undetected.

Operating a metal detector to catch a contaminant in its largest form is generally viewed as the best method to avoid costly waste. In practice, the rejected product will be a small amount of raw material/unfinished product versus finished/packaged product.

Concurrently, operating a detection unit only at the end of a line means contamination will only be detected at the most financially damaging stage of the process, where an entire batch of product could potentially be contaminated with unidentifiable fragments. At this point the cost to a business and brand reputation is considerably higher.

Manufacturers may optimize performance by installing several metal detectors positioned at critical control points throughout the process, rather than a single, big ‘catch-all’ detector at the end of the line.  

Utilizing upstream metal detection can also identify smaller contaminants which may not be possible at the end of the line system. HACCP guidance states that critical control points (CCPs) should be located at any step where hazards can be prevented, eliminated, or reduced to acceptable levels.

Finding the Right Solution
For dry ingredients, e.g. uncooked rice or flour, processors will often install a large gravity style inspection configuration upstream. With wet raw ingredients, i.e. meat, a conveyor metal detector would often be installed at the start of the processing line to identify any ferrous or non-ferrous metals, such as stainless steel. This ensures that no metal is fed into the grinder where it could damage equipment and be fragmented into smaller parts that are more difficult to detect and remove.

Once processed, liquid, paste, and soft meats are often passed through a pipeline metal detector prior to mixing with other ingredients. At the final stage, filled and sealed ready meals can then be passed individually or in bulk through a conveyor metal detector aperture.

A metal detector that can run multiple frequencies simultaneously, such as the Fortress Interceptor, is ideal for these types of elevated convenience products, as it can accurately inspect a variety of conductivities at the same time. Conquering the longstanding challenge of ‘product effect’ caused by moisture in meat, poultry, seafood, and even vegan ready meals, the Interceptor not only increases inspection sensitivity, but also helps to eliminate false rejects.

Quality assurance must always be a priority when considering a production line. Many manufacturers disregard the value of optimized metal detector systems to their business. However, zero recalls in the past doesn’t mean a ready meal manufacturer is immune to future threats.

Manufacturers of convenience foods incorporate multiple ingredients from numerous suppliers. Vigilance is essential to offset financial damage from waste as well as protecting brand reputation. To mitigate further contaminant risks, the decision to invest in high quality inspection equipment will pay dividends in the long run.

Fortress Technology Inc. (Toronto, Canada) custom manufactures metal detectors to suit customers’ needs, application, and specification, while ensuring optimal performance. For more information, call 416-754-2898 or visit www.fortresstechnology.com.

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Fortress Technology Inc.