How to Prevent Food Contamination

Food contamination is a common concern for both consumers and food producers. Contamination can occur at any stage of food preparation or during food processing. In this post we will discuss physical and biological contamination.

  • Physical –  foreign objects, for example pieces of metal or glass typically found in raw materials or introduced during processing
  • Biological –  e.g. bacteria, viruses, parasites, frequently caused by poor hygiene, cleaning processes or through improper storage of foods or materials

In the event of contaminated food products entering the food chain, the affected batch will most likely need to be recalled. Product recall is a very cost-intensive, logistically demanding process that leads to product waste, makes demands on resources and risks damage to the reputation of the manufacturer or retailer.

A joint industry study by the Food Marketing Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates the average cost of a food recall to be $10M in direct costs. This generally includes notification to regulatory bodies, supply chain and consumers, reverse logistics, storage, destruction of unsalable product, and the cost of additional labor required to carry out all due tasks. Moreover, the root cause is typically investigated internally by the food manufacturer. 

Direct costs do not include what could arguably be the bigger economic burden to the company. Namely, retailer fines, lawsuits filed by upset customers, the costs of any agreed or mandated governmental oversight after the incident, negative media coverage, lost sales, and the impact to the company’s market value and brand reputation.

In the digital age one can't help but be aware of food safety concerns with social media giving consumers their own voice and a channel to spread the news right away. In a Harris Interactive poll, consumers indicated that 55% would switch brands temporarily following a recall, 15% said they would never purchase the recalled product again and 21% would avoid purchasing any brand made by the manufacturer of the recalled product. 

These figures clearly indicate that a threat to consumers' health may likely cause irretrievable damage to the business in charge. Food manufacturers therefore make preventing contamination one of their top priorities. Adequate measures need to be taken in order to prevent all three kinds of food contamination.

When it comes to contamination by foreign objects such as metal fragments, glass or plastics, the threat to consumer health increases as injury or choking hazards arise. In order to prevent contamination of this type, modern metal detectors and x-ray inspection systems are ideal solutions. Advanced inspection systems can detect contaminants and remove affected products from the production line, allowing only safe product to leave the production site, minimizing the risk of costly product recalls. 

In order to avoid biological contamination, all food contact surfaces used in the production process need to be cleaned often and thoroughly. The hygienic design of equipment, such as scales, balances and inspection equipment makes all parts accessible during cleaning and ensures enclosures housing control systems are sealed to avoid water or cleaning detergent ingress. Hygienic design is particularly important if multiple ingredients or products are processed using the same equipment - in such case there's a risk of cross-contamination. Even trace amounts of known allergens can be a serious threat to consumer health if undeclared. 

Employee training is also vital to maintain hygiene standards. It is necessary for every person involved food production processes to follow required hygienic procedures, such as washing hands and making sure protective gear is worn to avoid unwanted contaminants ending up in the product. Maintaining excellent hygiene throughout production and storage effectively mitigates the risk of biological and chemical contamination.