By Yuanjun Chloe Lu, application specialist at Thermo Fisher Scientific

Product quality and safety are paramount to food manufacturers. Regardless of whether a product is fresh or processed, there are numerous opportunities for foreign object contamination. The journey of an ingredient from its starting point to the dinner table is long. From harvesting and growing foods to transport, intake at the food plant, and processing steps including forming, mixing, cooking and packaging, foreign objects could inadvertently fall or shave into a mixer, belt or package, or even from processing equipment breakage. Food processors require high performing product inspection equipment at key points in the process to ensure that their finished products are free from foreign objects. The stakes are high for any food company as consumer safety and brand protection are at risk.

The plant-based protein sector offers huge upside and growth potential for food processors. The industry is estimated to be $3.1 billion in 2020 according to the Good Food Institute — and growing. Accordingly, there are both regulatory requirements and increasingly even more demanding retailer codes of practice that plant protein processors will need to meet. To ensure quality and safety, a modern product inspection program is critical to ensure that food safety and brand protection are part of the recipe for growth.

The growth of plant-based food

There is much innovation in plant-based food products; the market need extends far beyond the relatively limited audience of vegans. Growing concerns over the resources required and environmental impact such as excessive greenhouse gas emissions from producing beef, poultry, pork and even fish proteins are helping to drive growth along with an increasing number of consumers seeking an alternative diet that includes but is not exclusively plant based. Brands such as Beyond Meat, Gardein, and MorningStar Farms are the key players with growing product offerings and loyal customer bases.

Understanding contamination risks

Plant-based proteins such as soybeans, peas, lentils, and chickpeas are formulated into food products that may mimic the look, taste, texture, and feel of traditional animal proteins or may be a blend of vegetable and animal proteins. These are often highly processed products that have gone through a series of manufacturing steps. Just like other packaged grocery items, they face potential hazards that could enter the process at any stage, which makes having a rigorous product inspection regimen essential.

Preventing foreign object contamination

Millions of pounds of food products are recalled annually due to the presence of foreign contaminants. These costly recalls not only decrease profitability through lost sales and increased costs but can also damage company reputations and put consumer health at risk. Almost any packaged food type can be susceptible to foreign contaminant problems. Compliance with global standards such as FDA HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) and the GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) is a must. Under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Preventive Controls (PC) rule, manufacturers must identify hazards, define preventive controls to eliminate/reduce hazards, determine process parameters for these controls, and then implement and continue to monitor the process to ensure the system is working properly. Preventive controls for physical hazards often include metal detectors and X-ray inspection systems. New technologies improve detection sensitivity to the extent that food processors can find virtually any foreign object in their packaged and unpackaged food products.

For applications where metal materials may be the greatest risk as contaminants, adding metal detection instruments to the process will be crucial to minimize the potential of introducing these contaminants. Among the latest metal detection technologies, five-frequency multiscan metal detection provides unmatched sensitivity and the highest probability of detecting metal foreign objects. In applications where non-metallic contaminant types could be present, such as bone, glass, and stones, or for products using metalized film packaging, which will drastically impact metal detector performance, X-ray inspection would be more applicable and highly recommended. Increasingly, the industry is moving to X-ray inspection – and retailers are mandating it – because it can inspect a broader range of contaminants with high sensitivity. For food processors innovating in the plant proteins market, X-ray inspection may provide the greatest flexibility and broadest range of options from entry level to high-powered, highly specialized systems.

The manufacturing and packaging process varies at each plant. The right solution for an application is best determined by either an onsite demonstration or through sample testing at equipment manufacturer’s site where the plant process will be replicated. This will provide a more detailed picture of the types and sizes of contaminants food inspection equipment is able to capture and provide reassurance that the planned protection measures will be successful in the field.

Yuanjun Chloe Lu is an Application Specialist in Thermo Fisher Scientific’s Product Inspection Business. She received an MSc degree in Analytical chemistry from the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. Her background is in food and beverage manufacturing and packaging processes.

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