There is perhaps nothing as crucial in the processing of meat and poultry as safeguarding proteins from foreign objects.

In addition to keeping consumers safe, effective screening procedures better enable suppliers and retailers to avoid costly product recalls and the tarnishing of a brand’s reputation.

“There is an increasing number of recalls because of foreign objects in protein, particularly hard plastic or metal,” says Martin Bucknavage, senior food safety extension associate in the Department of Food Science at Pennsylvania State University, in University Park. “As few as one or two objects in meats that consumers report can trigger a recall and, depending on the situation, such as having foreign objects in different lots, the scope of the recall can include multiple lots with tens of thousands of pounds of product implicated.”

The discovery of foreign materials in meat and poultry also is becoming more significant as consumers can immediately post pictures of the contaminated proteins on social media while incriminating the brand, adds John Butts, adviser to the chief executive officer at Land O’Frost Inc., a Lansing, Ill.-based lunchmeat supplier, and principal of St. John, Ind.-based consulting firm Food Safety By Design LLC. While he notes, “virtually every step in the production process has some risk potential,” a range of detection technologies are helping to reduce the threats.

Conventional metal detectors, which typically range from $15,000 to $25,000, are effective lower-cost solutions for identifying larger objects in meats, such as knives or hooks, Butts says.

Also prominent are X-ray systems which pass a product through a beam. Software within the system analyzes the image and compares it to a pre-determined acceptance standard.


A range of possibilities

Single-energy X-ray systems are effective at detecting foreign bodies that exhibit an X-ray absorption spike relative to the surrounding product’s absorption, analysts say. That includes the detection of stainless steel, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, glass, calcified bone, mineral stone and high-density plastics and rubber, regardless of their shape, size or location within a product.

Dual-energy X-rays use two energy spectrums to discriminate between high- and low-channel X-rays and are superior at detecting objects that show a very small X-ray absorption variation, such as dense foreign bodies.

The dual energy X-ray technology can more accurately detect inorganic foreign bodies, including flat glass, bone, stones, rocks, low-density rubber and some plastic and small aluminum.

Both single- and dual-energy X-ray systems, however, are incapable of detecting organic or near-organic foreign bodies, such as wood and insects, in most food products, analysts say.

“Dual energy X-ray systems have been gaining prominence over the last several years, particularly for finding chicken bones while reducing false rejects,” Butts says. “Standard single-energy X-ray systems are improving in detection and cost of ownership and the technology is becoming more attractive for use in many different meat inspection formats, ranging from bagged final products to bulk inspection of pumped meat products.”

Single- and dual-energy X-ray technologies typically range from $40,000 to $120,000, and $100,000 to $250,000, respectively, and the cost of all equipment can vary in accordance with system size and capabilities, Butts says. Devices also must be regularly maintained and calibrated for the best outcomes, Bucknavage says.

“Each technology has a place in a facility as long as an operator’s detection goals align with the equipment’s capabilities,” Butts says. “But with machinery continuously improving, plant operators must consider the impact the newer inspection devices can have in further reducing foreign-material risk.”

In addition to leveraging the appropriate technologies, operators seeking maximum safeguards must have efficient operating procedures. This includes ensuring there is a uniform flow of proteins into the machines, Butts says. Such procedures, however, may demand redesigning processing facilities to better accommodate the equipment and enable rapid reprocessing of meats after contaminants are removed, he says.

Educating workers on proper detection techniques also is crucial for enhancing food safety, Butts says. Training, however, can be challenging because of the typically high employee turnover rates in meat and poultry facilities.

“It is critical that all plant workers understand how to prevent risks from turning into product recalls,” Butts says.


Covering all the food safety bases

Some meat and poultry processors are leveraging a range of technologies and procedures for maximum effectiveness. Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Protein, for example, uses metal detection, X-ray and bone-elimination systems as well as dual-stage grinding equipment, says Scott Eilert, Cargill Protein vice president of customer quality.

Cargill Protein also acknowledges employees who notify the company about specific contamination risks, he says. Workers “are the most effective form of control.”

An in-house team monitors technological advances so the supplier can consistently upgrade its detection capabilities and food safety measures as newer designs become available, Eilert says.

“Investing in foreign-material detection systems is essential as the speed and sensitivity of the technologies continue to improve,” he says, adding that Cargill Protein uses the equipment early in the production process and on finished products to maximize safety and verify that its detection controls are effective.

Despite the availability of a wider range of foreign-material detection devices, safeguarding proteins from all potential contamination sources remains challenging, Bucknavage says. Among the numerous hazards is having foreign matter arriving in raw materials and poor personnel practices, such as a worker leaving a pen or flashlight near processing equipment or not properly removing exterior wrappings or banding from packaging.

The degree of risk also is dependent on the size, complexity and age of a plant and the operator’s good manufacturing practices (GMP), says Bob Delmore, a professor in the Center for Meat Safety and Quality in the Department of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins.

Operators of large facilities with multi-part production lines, for instance, often face the threat of worn-out gaskets and other machine parts contaminating meat, he says. He suggests processors regularly analyze production methods and identify risks before implementing new safety protocols.

Eliminating all threats in older plants can be particularly daunting, Delmore says, as the facilities often have more potential contaminants, such as peeling paint, and typically require extra vigilance if meat and poultry is to remain safe.

“It all comes down to prevention and monitoring and for companies to implement and enforce robust GMPs,” Delmore says. “That includes evaluating quality assurance systems and a daily scrutiny of compliance with the GMPs.”


An ounce of prevention …

Operators can further reduce risk by establishing preventative maintenance programs for equipment likely to be sources of contamination because of deteriorating parts, he says.

Such elements may include broken or cracking belts, fins and line guards, Bucknavage says.

Other preventive measures include inspections of incoming raw materials, only sourcing products from suppliers who have superior safety controls and ensuring employees follow acceptable practices and are diligent in reporting issues, he says.

Preventive procedures must be at the core of any foreign-material identification initiative, Delmore says.

“Detection systems are important, but they are not substitutes for proper controls in the plants,” he says, adding that a focus on food safety is essential as “recent product recalls are intensifying the scrutiny the meat and poultry industry is facing.”  NP