6 Gaps in Your Environmental Testing Program: #5 Foreign Bodies

Foreign bodies are among the chief sources of customer complaints concerning food products. According to the EU’s RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed), the presence of foreign bodies is the third most frequent source of complaint, preceded only by that of pathogenic microorganisms and allergens.

What are foreign bodies?

Even in the best-managed production facilities, there is always the risk that fragments from production equipment or packaging materials may inadvertently end up in the final product. The impact on food quality can be more than just an aesthetic concern; foreign bodies can cause life-threating incidents. The three most frequently reported kinds of for¬eign bodies are plastic, metal and glass. These hard materials can cause injury to the human digestive tract and, in some cases, can be toxic. Foreign bodies are typically found in ground or bulk raw materials such as cereals or flours as well as in processed foods. Glass fragments, for example, are usually found in products packaged in glass, where accidental damage can lead to contamination by foreign bodies.

Why should food producers care about foreign bodies?

Foreign material of any kind can potentially introduce a physical hazard into a food product. European legislation requires that food producers comply with various hygiene regulations to ensure that food is safe hazard-free. This includes the reduction and elimination of foreign bodies in food. In the USA, hard or sharp foreign objects are legislated as adulterants; the failure to prevent them from entering the final product can result in prosecution by regulatory authorities. The resulting damage to the brand of the producer can be considerable.

How can food producers detect foreign bodies?

Visual inspection, while important as an initial step, can be subjective; its effectiveness is subject to human error and can be influenced by any number of factors, such as lighting, heating, ventilation and noise. Highly sensitive, automated systems are generally the industry standard. Some frequently used technologies on the market that can detect certain foreign bodies include thermal imaging systems, metal detectors and X-ray systems. These systems are well suited for various larger objects that may enter the food production process. Metal detectors, of course, are not able to detect glass or plastics. Both X-ray and IR-imaging can distinguish larger contaminants from the food product thanks to their differing energy spectrums. 

These technologies, however, cannot detect the smaller particles caused, for example, by abrasion from parts of the production machine. Furthermore, the efficacy of these technologies can be vouchsafed only if most of the final food product is able to pass through the limited detection area of the systems. The market currently lacks a solution that can detect microscopic materials during the production process and as part of cleaning verification. Small microscopic particles, whether introduced by abrasion or by the use of cleaning equipment or cleaning agents, could represent a serious risk to consumers in that they may indicate the presence of larger foreign bodies in the production line. As part of a general cleaning program, the monitoring of microscopic particles can minimize the contamination risk from larger foreign bodies.

This article originally appeared in International Food & Meat Topics 31 (5).