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Inspection and detection technology represents one of the strongest lines of defence when it comes food packaging manufacturers avoiding recalls and maintaining product integrity. We look at some of the latest solutions to hit the market and the potential benefits to an industry that cannot afford to shirk its safety obligations.

Similar to the measures deployed by today’s Big Pharma, in which track-and-trace technology is now de rigueur, food and beverage companies have a responsibility to ensure that product integrity and safety is in no way compromised.

This, in turn, requires comestibles producers to select the most appropriate packaging material in order to provide protection from spoilage, as well as the migration of undesirable agents during a product’s shelf life.

Regulatory bodies and authorities such as the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have become increasingly vocal in their exhortations for the food packaging sector to mitigate possible sources of contamination. These unwanted fonts can include everything from raw materials and machinery to people and the surrounding environment.

Also deterred by the negative PR that inevitably stems from product recalls, food companies simply have no choice but to toe the line and make sure their products meet the necessary edicts in terms of contamination levels.

"Food producers have an obligation," says Beate Kettlitz, director of food policy, science and R&D at FoodDrinkEurope. "We really need to ask ourselves, ‘How do we handle these food products? How do we prevent any unnecessary spoilage?’ While we are living in a relatively safe world, it is never 100% safe. We can’t take things for granted."

Kettlitz’s brand of cautious optimism is commonplace within the European food space. While advances in packaging innovation and technology have reduced the chances of bogus products leaving the assembly line, there is no room for complacency.

In particular, vigilance needs to be paid to synthetic threats, whereby food can be contaminated through substances present in the packaging. Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical found in polycarbonate – commonly used to make food containers, returnable bottles and baby feeding bottles – remains a particular point of scrutiny for the EFSA.

The same applies to the prevention of bacteria, such as listeria, which can infiltrate ready-to-eat foods, including fish, cold meats and soft cheeses. Although infections are rare, the health costs can be severe, with high hospitalisation and mortality rates. In 2011, 1,470 cases were reported in the EU; the death rate was 12.7%.

And while a baseline study conducted by the EFSA in 2013 reported that the proportion of food samples exceeding the legal limit (100 bacteria per gram) was nominal – 1.7% of fish, 0.4% of meat and 0.06 % of cheese samples – the proper food manufacturing and packaging processes cannot be flouted under any circumstance.

"It is true that the latest EFSA report indicates that we haven’t seen a significant increase in listeria cases," explains Kettlitz. "This is great, of course, but we cannot take our eyes of the ball – from time to time, we still see products recalled by the manufacturers themselves. We need to continue to ensure that we do not have conditions that allow listeria to proliferate."

Strong hygienic practices aside, flexible inspection and detection technology is perhaps the strongest weapon with which food manufacturers can staunch the likes of BPA and listeria. Consequently, packaging players have sought to develop better product inspection solutions that operate with greater accuracy – not to mention higher speeds.

Mettler-Toledo Product Inspection is one such outfit to have invested much time and effort in this field. As a division of Mettler-Toledo – the global manufacturer of precision instruments and services for industrial use – the group has developed the X36 Series, a system with a 20W generator and 0.8mm diode option that is five times more sensitive to x-rays than traditional systems on the market.

"We have invested considerable time and effort to develop innovative systems capable of meeting the ever-changing needs of manufacturers and their customers," says Neil Giles, marketing communications manager, Mettler-Toledo Product Inspection.

"For manufacturers in the food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries, the main reasons for utilising product inspection technologies include guaranteeing the production of high quality contaminant-free and safe products, compliance with local and international safety regulations and guidelines, and reduction of waste or product give-away."

For Kettlitz, the best way of guaranteeing that food manufacturers are able to avail themselves of the most suitable inspection and detection technologies for their specific needs is greater dialogue with the packaging sector and the food safety authorities.

"At FoodDrinkEurope, we say that communication between supply chain partners with our packaging material producers is paramount," she states. "In addition, when we use packaging materials, we need to inform the packaging producers why we are using the respective material, so we get the right material. That’s an obligation between the partners in the supply chain."

It’s a sentiment that resonates with Carole Besnard, marketing manager at Luceo Inspection Worldwide. Explaining the factors that went into designing the new generation of the company’s ThermoSecure line – a food packaging inspection machine that detects and rejects all products with poor quality sealing and labelling – she says: "This new machine was designed in accordance with the requirements of food industry manufacturers and their environments along two fundamental axes: hygienic principles and the machine’s ease of use and operation. The fully stainless steel chassis features inclined planes for the drainage of washing water. The new machine contains no glass parts, which is in line with the recommendations of the HACCP directive. Many components of the machine are EHEDG certified.

"ThermoSecure inspects and tracks all packaging, archives the important production data and images to prevent rework operations on defective packaging, complaints or even product recalls due to packaging integrity problems," says Besnard.

As well as the aforementioned perils of biological and chemical interference, metal contamination also represents one of the most common forms of foreign bodies in food products. If undetected, this can pose a grave safety hazard for consumers, to the obvious detriment of a food manufacturer’s brand, in the eventuality of product recall.

However, while metal detection systems can be a powerful line of defence, it’s not an absolute method and is subject to variation in terms of effectiveness and sensibility. Best practice and proper management of metal detection systems is therefore vital to ensure maximum protection.

Tna, the Australian-headquartered provider of integrated food packaging and processing solutions, has developed a new hyper-detect metal detector which, when integrated within any VFFS packaging system, provides single-point operation from the packaging system screen. Detection of a contaminant immediately signals the packaging machine to stop or double bag to ensure the contaminated product is isolated or immediately rejected, and subsequently removed from the processing line.

"In today’s highly accountable business environment, food manufacturers need to optimise the performance and value of their metal detection systems," says Lawrence Roos, tna’s group product manager.

"They can no longer be viewed as just a means to remove metallic contamination; they play a far more important role, as a comprehensive and effective metal detection system can maximise product safety, meet retailer standards, ensure regulatory compliance, protect consumers’ well-being, maximise yield and protect the brands of food producers. Ultimately, this will help to grow sales and increase profits."

The examples above would seem to bespeak a definite march of progress regarding the means by which the food packaging sector scrutinises products before they hit the market. Kettlitz, for one, believes that detection and inspection technology is up to scratch – despite the odd example of negative publicity within the press.

"Is enough being done in this area? I think so, " she states categorically. "But, as we have all seen, there are still headlines out there, which are unpleasant. But, I have to say that I doubt whether many of these headlines are entirely correct."Mettler-Toledo’s Giles also concurs that product inspection technology has come on leaps and bounds, and will only continue to improve and diversify in the years ahead.

"Product inspection technology will continue to develop over the coming years to meet not just changes in regulations governing the food, beverage and pharmaceutical sectors, but also challenges faced by manufacturers," he says. "Whether these challenges are increased global competition, the rising cost of raw materials or new consumer demands, product inspection experts will be on hand to help manufacturers meet them head on."