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Contaminant detection in food manufacturing

30 August 2013

From cable ties on wires and tubes to conveyor belts and cleaning equipment, many ancillary products are used in food manufacturing and packaging.

Plastic components within food or pharmaceutical production lines should have a detectable metal content, but this is not a statutory requirement and there are no established standards. Additionally, some products may contain such low percentages of metal that they will not be picked up by magnetic detection equipment at all – and not all contamination originates from ‘detectable’ products. Steve Bailey, managing director of Hygiene Group, looks at how detection can come from an unexpected source – contract cleaning specialists.

Contamination is a major issue that can cause major logistical problems for manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers. For the consumer, contaminants like fragments of metal, plastics, rubber or other materials are unhygienic, unpleasant and can even represent a choking or laceration hazard.  

Between 2010 and 2012, there were eight food recalls in the UK as a result of pieces of plastic being found in the end product – these have included raisins, baby food, desserts, processed meat and drinks*.  Similarly, a common complaint of ‘mouse tails’ in ice cream or baked into breads, sometimes correct, can often be pieces of string, from frayed belts or the stitching of ingredients bags.

Already this year, three major household names in the industry have had to recall products due to contamination from plastic parts in particular. The impact of contamination and recalls can be disastrous and include the cost of internal investigations, lost production, lost sales and, possibly, legal costs.  And, of course, there is also reputational damage to be considered.

Ensuring non-metallic items – such as brushes, cable ties, squeegees and scoops – are brightly coloured to stand out against the food and include metal-detectable content, is one approach. However, detection levels are affected by many factors, for example wet food products can result in lower detection rates than dry, and this still takes no account of a contaminant originating from failed components in the manufacturing equipment itself. 

Wear and tear on manufacturing equipment is inevitable, and can include: conveyor belt fraying, allowing pieces of canvas and plastic to fall into foods; ageing of rubber seals which turn brittle and can leave black particles in sauces, drinks or other liquid foods; or the cracking of plastic light covers, leaving fragments which look like glass within the food products. None of these particles are metal-detectable, and are difficult to spot during production. 

But, help is on hand, and from an unexpected source. When planning cleaning procedures, contract cleaning specialists undertake detailed surveys and assessments of all the surfaces to be cleaned. While the primary aim is to determine the cleaning frequency and methods necessary on the production equipment and the wider environment, a useful outcome is also the identification of potential equipment damage. Repeat inspections after every clean mean that trained cleaning staff are ideally placed to notice gradual deterioration in the equipment, allowing them to remove any potential contaminants but, more importantly, to report these for preventative maintenance.

Additionally, cleaning staff trained in pest recognition can provide early warnings of potential issues. For example, recognising that a ‘spider web’ on a light is really caused by moths can avoid contamination from hundreds of insects as well as protecting stock.

In this way, the role of a specialist cleaning company is not limited to providing a highly effective cleaning service. Their training, experience and expertise are a major asset in brand – and consumer - protection. 

*Source:  RecallUK