Plastic and rubber are maybe two of the most common materials in food production. They are used in the processing equipment, tools, protective clothing and in the food packaging, of course.
Even though these materials help food producers to maintain high sanitation levels and achieve more cost-efficient production, they also possess contamination hazards that in worst cases can lead up to product recalls.
When establishing your HACCP plan, it’s important to consider all the possible contamination materials and hazards the products might be exposed to. Production equipment with plastic or rubber parts possesses possibly one of the most common risks for causing contamination.
Already during the first half of this year, there have been several plastic and rubber contaminations in the US alone according to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). These contaminations have led to massive recalls, where the producers needed to call back tens of thousands of products, not to mention the brand damage caused.
Read more about the causes of product recalls from our previous blog post.
Let’s take a look at the subject from the inspection point of view – what can be done and what should be done in order to reduce the risk of plastic contamination.
How to Detect Plastic Contaminants in Food Production?
Plastic and rubber are two of the most common materials in food production, but also possibly two of the trickiest contaminants to find in a food product. The detection rate of plastic contaminants is affected by the type of plastic and the density compared to the inspected food product. This makes the matter complicated.
We always recommend conducting a thorough application test before purchasing any inspection equipment. This way you will know precisely which types and sizes of contaminants the inspection system can find from your food products.
The test report you receive helps you to determine the critical limits when considering the risks in your production when evaluating your HACCP plan.
Something you can do to improve the detection performance is to use high-density plastics making the possible contaminants more detectable. Usually higher density means higher detection rate with X-ray systems, but the detection depends also on the properties of the inspected food product.
The most efficient way to improve the detection of plastic contaminants is to use X-ray visible plastic in the food production environment. These plastics have been enriched with high-density materials to ease the detection.
On the other hand, sometimes food producers want some plastic to be present in the product. For example, in the ready-to-eat industry, you could actually want to detect that the product has a certain plastic component, such as a plastic fork, inside the packaging. This is where X-ray inspection can help – by recognizing the plastic component from its density.
How to Prevent Plastic Contaminants in Food Production?
In order to completely eliminate the possibility for any plastic contaminations, food producers should minimize the use of plastic or rubber in the production environment. It is not very realistic to completely eliminate these materials from the production since many processing machines have plastic parts in them. That’s why we have to find other ways to prevent possible contamination.
The first, and probably the easiest thing to do, is to use X-ray visible tools, pens, gloves and band-aids in the production environment. They are made from food-safe materials and are enriched with materials to make them detectable with X-ray systems. X-ray visible accessories, where the high-density detectable material is evenly spread across the item are the safest since it can be detected even if only a small fracture of it ends up in the production.
Usually, some of the high-risk contamination parts or accessories are of certain color, e.g. bright blue conveyor belt or red bread bag closer, so that an optical camera can detect them too. The only limitation with optical systems is that they detect visible contaminants on top of the product but not contaminants inside the product, as X-ray systems do.
To further improve the detectability of plastic or rubber contaminants, it is important that the detection is performed after the food product has been packaged and sealed. No matter what inspection method is used, the detection rate drops if the products are inspected in their secondary packaging, e.g. a carton box with tens of packaged products inside.
Also, when the inspection happens in the primary packaging phase, the benefits of an X-ray inspection can be utilized more efficiently, e.g. the detection of desirable plastic components such as plastic utensils.
In conclusion, there are several steps a food producer can take to improve the detection of hazardous contaminants, such as plastic and rubber. The first thing is to acknowledge the risk of contamination, then reducing the risks of exposure, and finally the most important decision of implementing proper inspection equipment to ensure the safety of your food products and to protect your customers and your food brand.