Recalls occur on meat and poultry products for a variety of reasons — from positive tests for pathogens to allergen-labeling issues to foreign-material contamination. Any reason for a product recall is a serious one — and each should open the industry’s eyes to what it can do better to prevent these recalls from occurring.
Certainly, the protein-processing industry has done well to mitigate food-safety issues such as these. However, in recent months there has been a number of higher-profile brands subjected to recalls due to foreign-material contamination, and 2012 USDA numbers show a serious uptick in foreign-material contamination recalls — even as detection technology speeds forward, making significant strides in protecting the product stream and the end consumer.
Do the numbers tell a story of breakdowns in preventative maintenance to detect foreign materials (such as bone fragments, plastics, glass or metal), or do they instead represent how the industry is better able to quickly identify and trace potential contaminants? Or, do they simply reflect a more thorough reporting structure in the industry today?
“I believe the extended authority of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to mandate recalls has increased the number of recalls in general, and foreign-material withdrawals specifically,” says Melinda Allen, consultant, MB&A Consulting, Atlanta.  “Under the Food Safety Modernization Act, the FDA has expanded action authority. Consumer complaints now result in investigation and recommendations to recall, which are acted on by companies as voluntary to prevent mandatory recalls — the USDA likewise.”
Metal detectors and X-ray technology today has certainly improved over what had been used in the past. 
“Today’s X-ray machines run much faster than those from the past, have good detection rates, and the costs have really dropped,” says Richard Stier, consulting food scientist, Stratecon International Consultants, Sonoma, Calif. “There may seem to be more recalls due to foreign materials, but that is really not the case. With the information age, everything is reported. And, processors understand that once a piece of plastic, metal or glass is even suspected of being in the product, it’s considered adulterated and should be recalled.”
Society, too, has changed. In the past, if a consumer bit into a piece of chicken and hit a tiny piece of bone, the consumer would probably pull it out and keep eating. Today, that might not be the case, says Doug Britton, program manager of the Agricultural Technology Research Program, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Atlanta. 
“I can surmise that society is less tolerant of what would be considered natural foreign materials, such as bones in fish or chicken products, because they consider them to be choking hazards,” explains Britton.
Also, although producers are offering a wider variety of products to consumers today, such as value-added packaging, “there are no commercially available technologies to adequately screen for plastics,” says Wayne Daley, associate division chief of the Georgia Tech Research Institute’s Food Processing Technology Division.

Sources of contamination

Several sources still exist for contaminants, and the list continues to grow.
“With more value-added processed foods, consumers are expecting to have inedible parts of plant and animal ingredients removed,” says Allen, such as stems, seeds and bones even though they don’t all qualify as contaminants. 
“More frequent have been foreign materials such as plastic from packaging and equipment,” she says. “This is why maintenance programs, equipment inspection, as well as removal systems are very important to manufacturers.” 
Many of the recent recalls may well be due to breakdowns in preventative maintenance programs, notes Stier.
“As an example, the company may not have monitored a belt or chopper closely enough during cleaning or general maintenance, so its deterioration ended up leaving metal or plastic chips in the food,” he says.
Many of the foreign materials inadvertently come into the plant from the field (stones, metal, insects, dirt, small mammals, birds, etc.). This is a concern with mechanically harvested fruits and vegetables, says Stier, so processing lines include unit operations to remove them.  
During processing operations, systems such as the company’s glass and brittle plastic program and personnel practices that mandate how employees dress, store their belongings and what can be brought into the plant help minimize the potential for foreign-material contamination, he says. 
“Hopefully, these kinds of programs, plus proper training will prevent the most insidious of potential contamination concerns: employee sabotage,” he says.

Preventing contamination

So, how can processors decrease the likelihood of these materials being in the product stream, and later at the source?
“The first line of defense is ingredient approval and receiving,” says Allen. “Working with raw materials which have been pre-checked and produced under the best conditions can reduce the incoming foreign-material incidence.”  
In process removal and detection, systems such as screens, sieves, magnets, X-rays and metal detectors are able to remove and detect items that are inherent in the incoming ingredients or introduced during processing, she adds.  
“The operations and maintenance teams play a significant role in ensuring detection and removal systems are serviced and functioning properly,” says Allen. And they must also maintain food contact and supporting equipment to ensure that they do not become a source of contamination. 
“Burns created during resurfacing or welding repairs, screws loosened during wear and servicing, and regular wear of materials must be controlled and managed via regular and pre-op inspections,” says Allen. “All of this is dependent on a knowledgeable and committed team.”
Stier agrees that increasing preventative maintenance programs and training at all levels is crucial, and a well-designed preventative-maintenance program is still one of the basic Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) prerequisites. 
“Line workers need to have a start-up checklist to make sure that the equipment is ready to run: Look at belts, the condition of the equipment — especially choppers and cutters — check for missing bolts on a daily basis, and make sure everything is clean and properly set up before you start running,” he says.
In addition, says Britton, educating employees on preventative maintenance is an important task.
“Despite the technologies being employed, when people are operating a processing facility their behavior is unpredictable, and equipment wears out,” he explains. “Producers could look at automating more tasks to get rid of the human component.”
New technologies such as holographic ultrasounds and image screening show promise, he notes, but there isn’t enough investment in them yet to make them applicable to the meat and poultry industry. 
“Holographic ultrasounds are being used with medical applications, but cost is preventing them from being translated to the food space,” he says.
If a foreign material does slip through the hurdles currently set up in its path, producers have many issues to deal with during a recall, so “they are working to minimize the potential of one occurring, but are stymied by the lack of technology today,” says Daley.
After all, says Stier, “It’s cheaper to fix a fraying belt or gasket, than to deal with a recall.”
The major processors are taking advantage of new technologies as they appear, says Allen.  
“Ensuring smaller processors have access to these technologies is probably the challenge of the near future,” she says. “Better detection and removal will always be the next frontier.”