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By Lisa Lupo

Hormel Foods voluntarily recalled 153 cases (1,871 pounds) of Skippy Reduced Fat Creamy Peanut Butter Spread; Kraft Foods Group: approximately 242,000 cases of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese Dinner; Country Home: Gourmet Chocolate Chunk Salted Caramel Cookies; and OK Food: approximately 933,272 pounds of breaded chicken products. All were due to the possibility that they may contain small pieces of metal fragments.

If metal fragments can occur in and cause recalls for all these ... it can happen to virtually any food. How? The USDA OK Food recall notice illustrates how basic and universal a cause can be: “The problem was discovered on March 21, 2017, after OK Foods Inc. received five consumer complaints stating that metal objects were found in the ready-to-eat chicken products and by FSIS inspection personnel during verification activities. After an internal investigation, the firm identified the affected product and determined that the objects in all the complaints came from metal conveyor belting.”

Although there were no confirmed reports of adverse reactions due to consumption of the chicken products, one of the metal pieces was found by a student at a New York City school, causing the banning of OK Foods’ chicken from city schools.

While none of the aforementioned recalls have, thus far, resulted in injury, it is not uncommon for those who find foreign objects in food to consider litigation, which can impact every step of the supply chain. Thus, metal contamination in a food is not only a consumer safety issue, it also is an issue of economics and brand reputation for any business that had a hand in the product.

“Recalls can cost thousands and thousands of dollars, result in bad press, and possibly affect contracts with large retail operators,” said Detectapro Marketing Manager Paul Gaertner. “The litigious society we live in invites individuals to bring lawsuits for almost any reason. Biting into a product with a foreign object can bring bad press and financial loss to both the processor and the retail establishment where it was discovered.”

Additionally, both HACCP and the FSMA Preventive Controls rule mention physical hazards, e.g., hard or sharp objects, and adhering to the standards can help reduce insurance and aid in ISO 22000 compliance.

PREVENTION AND DETECTION. So what can food facilities do to protect against metal contamination? One primary step is to go back to the basics with the use of metal detectors and/or X-ray machines and detectable tools. Gaertner has seen a growth of metal-detectable products since 2005, from pens and markers to switch covers that are custom made for production machines.

“Throughout a processing line, there may be one or more detection points,” he said. “If a worker on the line drops a detectable pen into the mix, using a metal or X-ray detection system will help find/detect the pen or the pieces of the pen depending if it has gotten ground up, and will alert processing-line operators to the problem,” and keep contaminated product from reaching consumers.

Detectable tools are often brightly colored, predominantly blue because there are not many blue foods, said Detectamet Global Vice President of Sales and Marketing James Farmer Jr. “The color blue is widely used because it is the most contrasting color vs. food.” Blue is also widely associated with sterility, dependability, and trust. 

Prior to detectable products, non-detectable blue vinyl gloves and blue tools were used because they had a better chance of being seen on the line, Gaertner said, “So the color blue became and remains the majority of metal detectable products used today.” But as the market has matured, colors have been added to assist processors differentiate plant areas, such as organic or allergen-free zones.

Colored tools also can enable in-plant traceability, Farmer said. If colors are assigned to people or groups, a contamination found by a detector can be traced back, so the initiating person or group can be identified. “Additionally, serializing the detectable items can allow for pinpoint traceability and full accountability,” he said.

When considering detectable tools for purchase, Gaertner said, “Quality of the product is huge. How detectable is it? Where is it made? Does the company have product liability insurance?” And are the tools produced in environments monitored and tested for top detectable results?

While detectable tools can provide a layer of protection, maintenance of the metal/X-ray detection systems is just as critical, Gaertner said, explaining that the systems are only as good as the operators using them, and must be continually calibrated to the product being processed and the size of the foreign object to be detected.

“I’ve heard about detector system technicians being called to a processing line only to discover the detection system had been turned off because of too many false positives,” he said. “Knowing your product and knowing what detectable products you are using is crucial to catching foreign object contamination before it makes its way into final packaging and out the door to the retail destination.”

The facility should go beyond tools, however, and consider the detectability of all potential contaminants. “An audit should start with known past foreign contamination issues, then a full walk through of all potential contamination,” Farmer said. Don’t overlook international adulteration, he added. “You must protect yourself against it. Terrorism is real. Guard, protect, and inspect; don’t wait for the mistake.”

“In the past 10 years, we have seen an explosion of products now made as metal detectable,” Gaertner said. “As companies continue to embrace this technology through training and implementation, line workers, managers, and auditors will become better at spotting, solving, and avoiding problems relating to foreign object contamination.”

To help protect your consumer and your brand against foreign object contamination, he said, “Go all in with HACCP and the commitment to quality on the processing floor.”

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.