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Chilled and frozen convenience foods typically have more processing phases than any other food item. Although catching contaminants at the start of any food processing line is the most cost-effective solution, it is critical to assess and regularly review production risks in full context. This ensures that there are no HACCP gaps and that all of the essential inspection points are covered.

Eric Garr, Regional Sales Manager at Fortress Technology examines the benefits of having a longer-term strategic investment plan; the hidden and frequently overlooked risks on pre-prepared food processing lines; ways to prevent, eliminate or reduce microbiological, hygiene and physical contaminants; and how to spread machinery inspection assets throughout production lines so there are no HACCP-holes.

Rise of pantry-ready meals

The global consumption of ready-to-eat meals is expected to virtually double in value in the next six years, growing from USD 472,231.63 million in 2022 to USD 802,689.21 million by 2030[i]. Driven by consumers eager to save time and money on ingredient shopping, quick to prepare, coupled with taste and quality are the most desirable attributes that’s driving this market.

Although U.S. food producer costs have seen some stabilization in the past couple years, labor, transportation and warehousing prices continue to remain expensive compared to 2020. The current inflation crisis poses a challenge to food manufacturers striving to develop their growth strategies, meaning it’s imperative than any new manufacturing investments add value.[ii] Potential issues can be safeguarded, and ROI can be increased by being strategic when selecting high-contaminant-risk checkpoints and inspection equipment.

Whenever there is a change in a process or packaging, QA or risk professionals should revisit inspection protocols and hypothetical contamination scenarios to look at potential holes in the value chain. Even when there’s no significant change, food processing inspection risks should be reviewed annually as part of a defined HACCP assessment.

Convenience without contaminants

An inspection system can be integrated almost anywhere along a prepared food processing line. Most commonly, processors will choose end-of-line checkweighing and contaminant inspection technology after all the elements that make up a meal have been combined, cooked and packaged. Functioning as a final safeguard, at this phase there is virtually zero possibility of a new contaminant being introduced. However, if products are rejected, the costs incurred as a result of wasted food, labor and packaging can be exponentially higher.

With an average pre-prepared meal, there can be more than eight production steps between sourcing ingredients to packing, and more than five different product components each requiring, cleaning, peeling and inspection, slicing, cooking, quality inspection, flavoring and finally weighing and packing.

Contaminants, including metal, may be present in incoming raw ingredients. It’s common for prepared food manufacturers to have an extensive supply chain comprising farmgate and agricultural suppliers. Typically, the more raw ingredients involved, the more opportunities for contaminants to be introduced.

Metal remains the most likely contaminant in convenience food lines. This is, in part, due to high levels of automation in production plants, for example, sieving and mixing raw ingredients, rolling, cutting, scoring, trimming, mincing and grinding flavorings. Bones in meat products may go undetected. If processing equipment is not properly maintained, it also augments the risk of metal parts or flakes simply breaking off.

The final contaminant risk is biological pathogens. Bacteria multiplies every 20-30 minutes depending on the conditions, preferring high protein foods in liquid form. Given that convenience meals often include soft meats or gravies, it’s important to integrate hygienic, easy-to-clean inspection systems that prevent cross-contamination.

Catch before you cook

When assessing risks, consider the product application. For example, the production process of a ready-made meat pie can include preparing vegetables, cooked meats, gravies, and a pie crust. With each being individually cleaned, sliced, or weighed, leaving the inspection until the end could result in significant lost profits.  Not just from wasted food and packaging, but also labor and operational costs.

With dry ingredients, for instance, uncooked rice or pasta, processors will often install a large gravity style inspection configuration upstream.

Additionally, most food processors inspect incoming ingredients such as flavorings, vegetables, and meats, before the processing stage. At this CCP, a conveyor style system is typically used.

Performing supplier weight checks at this early phase of processing is also advisable. Bulk checkweighing machines can be utilized to verify the weight of incoming ingredients in formats up to 110lbs., and efficiently manage return rates.

With wet raw ingredients, for example meat, a conveyor metal detector is often installed at the start of the processing line. This ensures that no metal is fed into the grinder where it could damage equipment and also be fragmented into smaller parts that are more difficult to detect and remove.

In-line inspection

Although metal detectors inspect for the most-likely contaminant risk, X-ray equipment may be utilized to detect non-metallic contaminants, e.g., bones. This is more common for premium meals or prepared foods targeted at young children or the elderly.

Processed liquids, pastes, and soft meats can be passed through a pipeline metal detector prior to mixing with other ingredients. To avoid the spread of foodborne pathogens accumulating in industrial processing environments and avoid cross-contamination, a pump pipeline should be designed with minimal places where meat residue, water ingress and bacteria can build up and potentially get embedded in pipes and crevices. These should be able to withstand high-pressurized washdowns after every product changeover.

Additionally, prepared meals featuring specific portions of individual ingredients may benefit from an in-line checkweighing system. Used for product applications like pastry casings, pizza dough, or ready-made meatballs, these machines help to ensure portions are the correct amount, weight and size.

End-of-line safeguards

The number-one requirement for all food manufacturers is to ensure products are safe for consumption. Inspecting products after packaging using an end-of-line metal detection and/or X-ray system is the most important CCP. For most retailers, it is also a requirement.

The most common high-risk contamination culprit in food processing remains metal. However, X-ray machines may be advisable if there are specific risks. Foil packaging, such as metal trays, may influence the type of machine selected too.  Eric clarifies: “Both X-ray and metal detection systems offer distinct advantages. A manufacturer always needs to factor in their biggest contaminant risks. It’s equally critical to understand the varying product effect for each type of meat – minced, large joints, cooked, frozen, etc. – as they can behave differently in a metal detector.”

Before shipment, processors of prepared foods also need to verify their products are the correct weight in order to comply with Weights and Measures Regulations. A checkweigher can be integrated with both metal detectors and X-ray to ensure each product meets the nominal weight. Combining a checkweigher on the same frame as a metal detector or X-ray results in a smaller footprint than stand-alone units would occupy.

Where there might appear to be a need for multiple machines to cope with the increase in upstream output, Fortress recommends closely examining the options. For example, could a multi-lane system offer a better return on investment in a smaller footprint? Is it possible to channel multiple product lanes through a larger aperture? What sort of reject system is required?

Robust recordkeeping

Advanced software and connectivity enable fast, reliable and easy product set up and reporting. Additionally, collating live OEE data and reporting results directly to QA and technical personnel is increasingly imperative on fast-moving food processing lines.

For traceability and audit purposes, records must be retained in order to verify that each system is performing to defined FDA and GFSI food safety standards and to prove that inspection procedures are being followed consistently and correctly. Switching to digital record-keeping is generally favored as they are more secure, not prone to human errors and tests cannot be performed retrospectively. Additionally, it gives food processors immediate access to documentation in the event of an unannounced supplier or third-party inspection.

Automatic testing is also advisable. Commonly supplied on pipeline, gravity and conveyor metal detectors, the Fortress Halo Automatic Testing solution can help eliminate human errors, reduce labor demands and save time and money. One of the key benefits of automatic testing is food safety and QC standards are maintained, in many cases improved upon, without compromising production. The results from tests are automatically logged and digitally stored for GFSI audits.

Stay strategic

HACCP guidance states that critical control points (CCPs) should be located at any step where hazards can be prevented, eliminated, or reduced to acceptable levels. Every food processor’s needs are different. The same applies to products.

Rather than looking for patterns, examine potential CCP-holes. This is even more critical if a production process or packaging is changing.  An annual HACCP assessment – a requirement for most convenience food facilities – ensures that all essential inspection points are covered and, most importantly, that the facility remains compliant for retail and food service.