Every measure counts

Minimizing the risks of food contamination

Marel Every Measure Counts

Naturally, we expect our food to be tasty and nutritious. However—more than anything else—we expect it to be safe. Unfortunately, that is not a given. Its journey from farm to fork is a long one, with numerous health hazards along the way. The three main types of food contamination—physical, chemical, and biological— can have devastating consequences for both consumers and food processors. So, how do you detect and eliminate hazards when you can’t even see them?

What is food contamination?

Food contamination is a general term, but what does it really mean? Why does it happen, and how can it affect your health? Simply put, all food is at risk of contamination. Most cases fall into one of three categories:

  1. Chemical
  2. Physical
  3. Biological

Before going further, it is important to discuss food safety. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to the concept of food safety becoming more widespread and more strictly enforced. There is now greater awareness that the dangers come in many forms, both natural elements and foreign contaminants.

Therefore, safe food handling practices and procedures must be implemented across the chain of production and processing.

Chemical contamination in food processing can have devastating consequences

Chemical contamination

Food processing facilities use a lot of potentially harmful chemicals for cleaning and disinfection. Therefore, it is not surprising that they are a prevalent cause of food contamination. That may, for example, occur when a surface, such as a conveyor belt, still has chemical residue on it.

Chemical contamination can also happen at a much earlier stage. That includes steroid hormones, peracetic acid, pesticides in chicken feed, and disinfectant products for poultry houses.

There are various ways to minimize the risk of chemical contamination:

  • Label and store cleaning products and other chemicals properly
  • Always follow manufacturers’ instructions when cleaning or disinfecting
  • Following strict chemical use protocol, so the appropriate chemical is applied each time
  • Paying attention to instructions regarding dilution, contact time, and water temperature
  • Reporting and cleaning chemical spills immediately
Plastic and other physical contaminants are hard for food producers to detect. Marel equipment can help.

Physical contamination

Physical contaminants in food processing can be practically anything: plastic, broken glass, jewelry, hair, dirt, metal staples, bones, stones, pest bodies, cloth, and so on. The list is long, and often the contaminants are too small to see.

In addition, poorly maintained processing environments or faulty equipment can lead to foreign objects, such as flaking paint or loose screws, entering the food at unexpected times.

Physical contamination can cause serious harm to the consumer:

  • Broken teeth
  • Choking
  • Cuts and abrasions
  • Foul taste

Making matters even worse, the contaminants may also carry harmful biological contaminants, amplifying the risk of illness.

An additional consequence of foreign material contamination is the severe upset and discomfort caused to the customer who finds it in their food.

Here’s what food processors can do to minimize the risk of physical contamination:

  • Replace damaged equipment immediately
  • Report faults with equipment and premises
  • Implement a thorough pest control system
  • Follow a strict dress code
  • Undertake regular equipment maintenance

And the big one: inspect every piece of product on the processing line at multiple stages.

Physical contamination like bone in a poultry product— or any other type of food contamination— can have a devastating impact on a brand. That is especially true in our times of social media, where everyone has instant access to the entire world.

A brand can, quite simply, be celebrated or destroyed with a single comment or a photo of food that does not meet the consumer’s expectations of quality, hygiene, and safety.

Biological contamination in food production is an invisible - but serious - threat to consumer safety.

Biological contamination

Living creatures and the substances they produce can classify as food contaminants, transferred through saliva, pest droppings, blood, or fecal matter. Known as biological contamination, it is a grave matter. Not only is it a leading cause of food-borne illness and food poisoning, but it is also the main reason for food spoilage and waste.

Food-borne illness occurs when disease-causing microorganisms, also called pathogens, get into food and multiply to unsafe levels during the food production process. These include bacteria, viruses, mold, fungi, and toxins. Bacteria are tiny microorganisms that split and multiply very quickly.

Did you know: one single-cell bacteria can become two million under ideal conditions in just seven hours?

Slightly different from food-borne illnesses, food poisoning occurs when specific toxins are consumed, such as those produced by Salmonella, Staphylococcus, or Listeria. Microbial toxins are incredibly potent and can disable the immune system and damage tissues. Many microbial toxins are heat-resistant, making them even more difficult to eliminate. Even if the cooking process kills bacteria, the toxins remain in the food. They can cause violent, almost instantaneous symptoms.

To slow bacteria growth and prevent food safety risks, food producers must follow best practices designed to control bacterial growth:

  • Proper food handling technique
  • Rigorous cleaning and sanitizing procedures
  • Time and food temperature control
  • Staff training
  • Clean work environment

Certain foods like raw poultry and fish are especially vulnerable to biological contamination because they provide everything bacteria need to survive and multiply — food, water, and neutral acidity (pH). However, it’s important to remember that all foods can harbor dangerous pathogens. That is why food processors need strict safety controls at every stage of the production line.

Metal and bone elimination via X-ray technology

Food contamination can affect all kinds of food. Moreover, it can occur anywhere in the value chain: from the farm to the end consumer through the various food processing stages.

The good news is that we now have several tools to prevent this from occurring. Metal detection in food processing has been around for a very long time. However, in recent years, X-ray has increasingly become the technology of choice for the world’s leading food processors.

X-ray technology enables food processors to detect and reject hard contaminants, including metal and bones. Such detection systems are of great importance for processors who need to meet the food safety expectations of regulators, retailers, and consumers. Offering high levels of consistency, accuracy, and quality, this type of technology is far superior to the manual inspection processes that preceded them.

A fine example of this is Marel’s SensorX, a proven industry-standard solution for bone detection. SensorX  solutions for poultry, meat, and fish automatically find bones and other hard contaminants, rejecting them from the processing stream, thereby enabling processors to deliver consistently safe, high-quality products.

Food safety is in our hands

As we have now seen, food contamination — whether physical, chemical, or biological— can occur at any point during the production process. Therefore, avoiding contamination is critical from a food safety perspective, not to mention a brand’s reputation, supplier-customer relationships, and food producers’ profit targets.

However, by showing vigilance, investing in the finest foreign material detection solutions, and following strict guidelines at all times, that goal is well within reach.

Food safety is all of our responsibility. The risks to consumers, brand and profit margins make contamination of food a serious issue.

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