Food Contamination: Reputations on the Line

Food safety scares often make national and international headlines and a well-publicized incident can destroy the worth of a brand name in an alarmingly short period of time. Moreover, product recalls caused by physical contamination can cost millions of pounds to execute – with fines and compensation claims on top. Frank Borrmann, product inspection specialist, explains why product inspection technologies are a critical investment in the fight against physical food contamination.

Glass shards in Peach Melba in Germany, cereal husks in frozen purée in Sweden, metal wire in pastry products in the UK. These are just some of the recent examples of incidents reported to the European Commission concerning contaminated food and feed. In total, the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) contains 856 entries for the first quarter of 2018 alone. Believe it or not, the reported number of contamination incidents between 2011 and 2014 is twelve times higher than the number reported in the period 1970 to 1990. This significant increase cannot be simply explained by tighter regulations or changes in reporting methods. Contamination incidents are definitely on the rise.

The RASFF’s current annual report shows that the three most common forms of contaminants in food are metal, plastic and glass. These are typically found in raw materials such as cereals and flour, or processed products that have become contaminated during production. The good news: nowadays most physical contaminants are detectable thanks to advances in product inspection technology.

Safety First

The primary concern for retailers and food manufacturers in eliminating physical contamination is customer safety. If fragments of metal, bone, plastic, glass or any other foreign body are allowed to enter the food chain, there is a chance that they could seriously harm the health of consumers. There are many ways that physical contaminants can enter the food chain. These include accidentally being introduced by employees (e.g. personal effects such as jewelry); maintenance procedures taking place on or near the production or processing line, and; equipment malfunction or breakage during the manufacturing and packaging processes. Preventive measures therefore involve a mix of regular risk assessments, employee training, robust quality procedures, and compliance with regulatory requirements.

But there's more to food contamination avoidance than consumer protection alone. Product recalls caused by physical contamination are also a considerable risk to reputation. Consumers expect to receive the final product as it has been described and as it is desired: so the presence of any foreign body – however harmless – is totally unacceptable. Brand values built up painstakingly over time can be seriously undermined in a matter of hours by the bad publicity surrounding a food scare, and sometimes they simply do not survive the experience. For example, a medium-sized beverage manufacturer in Germany had to close as a consequence of suffering two consecutive product recalls within two weeks caused by foreign bodies. According to the findings of a recent food recall strategy report by Emerald Insight4, recalls often trigger a chain reaction effect throughout the supply chain and society as a whole.

Counting the Cost

The cost implications of food contamination incidents are significant, especially when the medium to long-term effects are factored in. If foreign bodies make it to the point of sale undetected, the retailer and their supply chain have to put a lot of logistical effort and money into the recall. According to a study by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, on average a major product recall in the food industry costs approximately eight million euros.5 In a worst-case scenario, health problems arising from foreign bodies in food can lead to legal actions, adding a further cost burden over time. Implementing a robust quality management program that includes the application of product inspection technologies to detect and remove physical contamination at source is, therefore, a sound investment. High-performance Inspection Technology Manufacturers of product inspection technologies put a lot of effort into continuous development to make sure that their systems keep pace with the needs of modern food production: whether it is a retailer’s desire to specify a process for rejecting and securing sub-standard products, or a manufacturer that needs to improve overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). In the case of a serious incident, the production data collected by product inspection technology will provide vital information about error sources and potentially affected batches. Thus, product recalls can be carried out more easily and more precisely. In cases of malicious intervention post-production, data like x-ray images can also be used to protect manufacturers by proving that goods left their facility in perfect condition. Conclusion Contamination continues to be an extremely serious issue, both in terms of consumer health and brand reputation, and effective counter-measures need to keep pace as food, packaging and production trends change over time. Advanced product inspection technologies are available to ensure that food manufacturers meet regulatory, retailer and consumer requirements, while future-proofing processes as they prepare for the more digital factories of the future.

To learn more about foreign body detection in the food industry download the free white paper: Ensuring Food Safety