Tag Archives: food packaging

Chris Keith, FlexXray
FST Soapbox

How Foreign Material Inspection Can Impact Your Liability From Packaging

By Chris Keith
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Chris Keith, FlexXray

Packaging is an essential component of our modern, global food supply. While it helps us preserve and protect food and creates instant brand recognition for consumers, packaging also inserts an additional level of necessary risk mitigation into the manufacturing process. Liability stemming from packaging is a serious concern for food manufacturers of all sizes, with millions of dollars and brand-damaging lawsuits on the line. Processed foods need packaging to arrive in the hands of consumers, and processed foods are necessary to feed the world’s population. According to a survey conducted by the United States National Library of Medicine, “60% of calories consumed were from ultra-processed foods.”1 This shows the prevalence of processed foods and the significant impact packaging, a ubiquitous component of processed foods, plays in the food industry.1 However, if not handled properly, food packaging can be a significant liability.

Liability from packaging commonly presents in two ways: First, as foreign material contamination. Broken, damaged or defective packaging material can end up in food products, which increases the risk of a consumer attempting to consume contaminated goods. Second, packaging can be a hurdle to effective remediation of foreign material contamination, as goods can often not be efficiently or effectively inspected back through in-plant critical control points. The resulting disposal of product can contribute to food and environmental waste, as well as lost profits.

The harsh truth is that if manufacturers lack processes to identify, prevent or mitigate foreign material contamination when it occurs in packaged food, packaging can be a significant liability at every stage from the manufacturing facility to the store shelf. Following strict food safety plans can save countless hours, resources and dollars in the long run.2

Foreign Material Contamination: Where It Comes From

Foreign material contamination comes from multiple sources in the production cycle. It can come from raw materials, like animal bones ending up in boneless meat products. It can happen during the production process when a screw or seal detaches from a machine and gets mixed into a pie. It can be biological, like an insect ending up in a bag of chips. Or it can come from packaging: A shard of glass winding up in a jar of salsa or a plastic wrapper finding itself in a muffin. All of these foreign material contaminants are risks and dangers for which manufacturers can be held liable.

Packaging-related contamination is a high priority for manufacturers. Foreign material contamination due to packaging occurs when contaminants like metal, plastic, styrofoam and other objects end up where they do not belong, disrupting the integrity and quality of the product. Packaging materials can break down into tiny pieces that inline inspection machines may not be able to identify. Inline machines are calibrated for a certain size and certain types of foreign material contamination, which may not include packaging materials. Additionally, inline machines are often used at critical points during the manufacturing process but are not commonly used to inspect completed packaged products.

Break It Down: Liabilities Within Food Packaging

The party most affected by missed foreign material contamination is the consumer. Current consumer trends point to greater ingredient awareness, education and research into the companies from which consumers purchase products. The consumer mindset of environmentally friendly products and socially responsible purchases are impacting the food industry directly. Consumers seek transparency from brands about the products they’re ingesting. When a consumer discovers foreign material contamination inside a product, it creates frustration and eliminates trust. In addition to negatively impacted brand reputation, a foreign object from packaging can be incredibly costly. Recalls, especially those that require a local or national public warning, are detrimental to a brand’s reputation.3 Consumer trust in a brand is priceless and can take years to repair when broken.

In the age of social media, consumer reports of foreign material contamination can spread like wildfire across multiple platforms, reaching countless consumers across the world. One tweet about a contaminated product can go viral, costing corporations their reputations or worse–– lawsuits. An accidental miss somewhere along the production line can result in public outrage and cost the manufacturer millions of dollars in wasted product and crisis management. Suppose a consumer accidentally consumes a foreign contaminant from product packaging which results in injury. In that case, the manufacturer could be held liable for the medical bills and even long-term care if the injury is debilitating. These court cases can be highly costly monetarily and in terms of public perception.

In addition to legal liability from consumers, the loss of product for foreign material contamination is typically very costly when labor, storage, time, materials and lost revenue are taken into account. A producer who makes the moral and ethical decision to dispose of product that may be contaminated loses money doing so. They also risk harming their reputation with consumers by contributing to the problem of food waste.

In the 21st century, shoppers are increasingly looking “beyond the label,” and are concerned with the impact their purchase behaviors have on the environment.4 Consumers in younger demographics are significantly more likely to have a purchase decision influenced by a company’s impact on and concern for the environment. Packaging is a major concern for food manufacturers as they seek to lessen their environmental impact to meet market demands. This impacts foreign material contamination in two important ways. First, as packaging materials move towards the use of biodegradable materials, the capability of technology to detect the difference between packaging and food material must increase. Second, environmentally-friendly packaging is still relatively new compared to traditional materials, and the risks of foreign material contamination associated with these materials are still relatively unknown.

Manufacturers are in a difficult position when dealing with the liabilities stemming from packaging as a foreign material contaminant. Compounding this issue is the role packaging plays in preventing manufacturers from using in-house processes or inline equipment to inspect product back through Critical Control Points. Inline mechanisms for identifying foreign material contamination are not designed to inspect completed, packaged product. If producers dispose of and rework product, they risk harm to sustainability-focused brands, production quotas and bottom lines. If they attempt to identify the contamination themselves, they lose valuable production time and potentially lose perishable product to spoilage. With nearly every solution, another liability arises.

Packaging Contaminants: Prevention, Response and Liability

The FDA-required Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan has seven principles to ensure manufacturers meet food safety goals from production to consumption. Physical, chemical and visual tests are involved to ensure foreign contaminants do not exist in products produced in the manufacturing facilities.5 The more detailed processes are in place, the more protected companies are from recalls and reducing the chance of a lawsuit where the manufacturer is liable. Implementing different programs and processes to prevent and diminish food waste ultimately positively impacts the manufacturer’s bottom line. The Business Case conducted a study called “Reducing Food Loss, and Waste” that found “99% of companies earned a positive investment when they implemented programs to reduce food waste”.6

Many companies engage third-party food inspection partners as an extra measure to ensure that their product is free from foreign material contamination. By electing to utilize third-party inspection services, manufacturers hit a trifecta: They can typically salvage the majority of on-hold product, reduce food waste, and with the right partner, get the data they need to have traceability of foreign material contamination issues at their plant.

Manufacturers should pursue third-party inspection partners that meet a high standard of excellence. The best third-party inspection partners use cutting-edge technology to inspect products in higher detail than inline machines. Their machines should be capable of identifying foreign material contaminants of all types and have a high capacity to turn around large volumes of product efficiently. Their machines should be capable of overcoming the obstacle of packaging as an impediment to inspection using machines with a larger aperture than typical inline tools. Lastly, third-party inspection adds significant value if it has the ability to find and retrieve foreign material contamination so manufacturers can effectively use the resulting data to identify and remediate problems within the plant. An inspection service that does not meet these criteria is not an inspection service, but merely a method for outsourcing the same practices that a manufacturer would conduct in-house.

Liability Questions Answered

So, when are companies liable for packaging issues? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t always black and white. FSMA is in place to help prevent foodborne illness, requiring Food Safety Plans. In addition, the FDA recognizes “that ensuring the safety of the food supply is a shared responsibility among many different points in the global supply chain for both human and animal food,” so manufacturers may not be the only ones liable in many cases.7 The problem arises when manufacturers miss foreign contaminants or if foreign biological contaminants affect the integrity of the packaging.

Even if companies take the necessary steps, incorporate a HACCP plan and are vigilant, contamination can, unfortunately, happen at any time to any manufacturer. Using a third-party partner as an outside resource for foreign material inspection is important. Choosing a third-party partner with the experience, certifications, technology, processes and reputation to protect your brand is critical. Manufacturers can validate their internal processes and data using reports from their third-party inspection partner more quickly than they could internally.

Food packaging and the potential liability involved can be daunting. Still, with proper processes and procedures in place, manufacturers can have confidence that their products are hitting the shelves with a low probability of recall or lawsuit due to a packaging issue. While there is always a chance of foreign material contamination, quality packaging materials, quality assurance processes and quality third-party inspection partners can significantly reduce a company’s potential liability.

References

  1. Baraldi, L. G. (March 9, 2018). “Consumption of ultra-processed foods and associated sociodemographic factors in the USA between 2007 and 2012: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study.” BMJ Open.
  2. FDA. “FSMA Final Rule For Preventive Controls For Human Food”.
  3. Lusk, J. (October 15, 2019). “Consumer Beliefs About Healthy Foods And Diets.”
  4. Cheung, K. H. J. L. (2020). “Meet the 2020 Consumers Driving Change“. IBM.
  5. FDA(August 14, 1997). “HACCP Principles & Application Guidelines.”
  6. Hansen, C. “The Business Case For Reducing Food Loss and Waste.” Champions 12.3.
  7. FDA. “Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine
FST Soapbox

How Food Processors Can Use Robots to Improve Food Quality

By Emily Newton
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Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine

Across industries, new innovations in robotics technologies are helping to speed up day-to-day work and improve product quality. Robots can be especially effective for businesses in the food processing industry, where a growing labor shortage poses trouble for processors.

While a number of critical industry tasks were difficult to fully or partially automate in the past, new robotics technology is helping to increase the number of potential applications for robots in the industry.

Consistency, Accuracy, and Speed

Food processing robots offer a few major advantages over conventional food processing workflows. Robots can perform a task repeatedly over the course of a work day or shift, typically with minimal deviation in precision. Unlike human workers, robots don’t get tired, and their pace of work tends to stay consistent. This combination of accuracy and speed has been found to increase site throughput while ensuring packaged products are up to company standards.

Food processors that adopt robots also see major gains in item consistency—more often, packaged products contain the same amount of food, weigh the same, and are packaged in the same manner.

Automated packaging systems can sometimes be a poor fit for certain food commodities, especially for products like delicate fruits and vegetables.

Experimentation, however, often leads to custom solutions that can handle these unique challenges. After experimentation with new weighing and packaging robots in the cannabis industry, for example, processors were able to accelerate the packaging process and create more consistently packaged items.

In the food processing industry, this can come in the form of robots with soft silicon grippers and attachments, which help companies package delicate products.

Workers production line
Workers in a factory sorting food by hand, could be assisted by new robot technology. (Unsplash image)

Preventing Cross Contamination

Despite improved food safety standards, foodborne disease outbreaks remain common in the United States.

The use of robots can help control cross-contamination in food processing plants.

With any human labor force comes the risk of cross-contamination. Workers assigned to packaging foods can easily transport pathogens from product to product or from one area of the facility to another. This is especially true in sites that process raw meat products. Even when following proper site hygiene practices, it’s possible for workers to unintentionally transport pathogens and other contaminants from one workcell to another.

Because work in food processing facilities is often shoulder-to-shoulder, it’s also easy for contaminants to spread from one worker to another once a particular cell has been contaminated.

Robots that are fixed in place and handle all the aspects of a particular packaging job can help localize potential contamination, making it easier for processors to minimize cross-contamination and keep food safe.

Robots can still contribute to cross contamination if not properly cleaned, but an additional set of robots could solve this problem, too. For example, one a provider of robots for the food processing industry has developed a set of robots capable of washing down an entire workcell.

These robots, working in pairs, activate at the end of each operating cycle and use high-powered jets of water to wash down the workcell, the packaging robots used there, and themselves.

Collaborative Robotics (Cobots)

One major recent innovation in robots has a new focus on tech that is collaborative.

These new robots, unlike conventional robotics, aren’t always built to fully automate a particular task. Instead, they are built to interact and work collaboratively alongside humans where necessary.

Artificial intelligence-based machine vision technology helps them navigate factory floors safely or assist in tasks like assembly and machine tending. Safety features like force limiters and padded joints help prevent injuries that can occur while working in close proximity to conventional robots.

These features also enable them to work in tight spaces without the use of safety cages that conventional robots sometimes require. In factories and food processing plants, they can provide assistance and speed up existing workflows.

For example, an article in Asia Pacific Food Industry cites one case study from a Swedish food processor, Orkla Foods. The company integrated cobots into a production line packaging vanilla cream, freeing up the human workers who had been responsible for the task. Before the cobots were introduced, workers had to bag and manually pack the vanilla cream into cartons.

Even with cobots, human workers are still necessary for tasks that require judgment, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Cobots can take over tasks that don’t lend themselves well to automation. These tasks tend to be tedious, dull, or even dangerous due to the repetitive motions workers need to make.

Even if a task can’t be fully automated, cobots can still help improve efficiency and boost accuracy. These robots provide the most significant benefits for businesses that need flexibility and agility in production.

Cobots are often lightweight and easy to reprogram on-the-fly, allowing workers to quickly move them from task to task as needed. In many cases, an entire fleet of cobots can be repositioned and reprogrammed in half a day, allowing a business to reconfigure its robots to handle entirely new tasks without additional capital investment.

This flexibility can also make cobots a better fit for personalized products than other systems. As product specifications change, a cobot can be easily programmed and reprogrammed to handle the differences.

The use of these robots can also help prevent cross contamination, like more conventional robotics.

Sector-Specific Applications

A handful of sectors within the food processing industry can also benefit from niche robotics designed to automate certain specific tasks.

Danish robotics manufacturer Varo, for example, developed a line of cake decorating and filling robots. These robots are designed with technology that allows them to determine which cake will be decorated next, minimizing the amount of human involvement needed to operate.

While these robots won’t be useful for every manufacturer, they are a good example of how many sectors within the industry stand to benefit from robots that can automate niche tasks.
Using Food Processing Robots to Improve Product Quality and Consistency
Robots help automate tasks that are dull, dirty or dangerous. In doing so, they typically provide businesses with significant upgrades to process accuracy, speed, and consistency.

New technology—like machine vision and collaborative robotics technology—is helping to expand the use cases of robots in the food processing industry. These robots can often improve product quality more effectively than process changes alone, and may help manage a labor gap that could persist well into the future.

Salami, plastic packaging

Using Raman Spectroscopy to Evaluate Laminated Food Packaging Films

By Ellen Link, Gary Johnson, Ph.D.
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Salami, plastic packaging

Laminated plastics are common and popular food packaging options. They are strong and flexible, making them ideal for both packing and presentation, and can be used for cooking, frozen foods, drink pouches, snack products and even pet food. Yet, unreliable plastics can create a problem for food packaging and the safety of a product.

If a grade of plastic is not what was promised or needed, there can be issues that lead to spoilage, spills and messes, crystallization, mold or other risks. Additionally, there may be concerns about how laminated films will interact with the product itself, as it could impact food safety or lifecycle. For these reasons, it is critical to have accurate information when evaluating the plastics films used in food packaging.

Raman Spectroscopy

Raman spectroscopy (RS) is a powerful method of identifying and characterizing chemical compounds based on light scattering by a sample. It can be used to identify layers in food packaging films to accurately understand the chemical makeup of the laminated plastic. The effect is named for its inventor, C.V. Raman, who was awarded the Nobel prize in physics for its discovery in 1930. It is a non-destructive method that uses an induced-dipole mechanism to probe the vibrations of the chemical bonds in a molecule. The Raman spectrum shows a pattern of molecular vibrations that represents a detailed chemical fingerprint of a material, providing insights into the product composition.

A Raman spectrum is obtained by illuminating the sample with a laser and collecting and measuring the scattered light with a spectrometer. The molecular vibrational modes vary depending on the geometry and electronic structure of the chemical compound present in the sample. By controlling the position of the laser focus point on a sample, a map of the composition can be created. This provides valuable information on the plastic film related to its composition, such as number of layers, thickness of each layer and overall make-up.

In the food packaging and safety industry, this technique can be used to evaluate laminated plastic films by examining polymers, minerals, and/or inorganic fillers and pigments present in the film. Specific food packaging products that can benefit from RS assessments include heat seals, containers, lids, films and wrappers both for durability and performance and for diffusion, permeation or other concerns.

Benefits and Limitations

There are numerous benefits to using the RS method. A major advantage is that there is virtually no sample preparation necessary; spectra can be obtained without direct contact, such as through the sides of glass vials or through windows in reaction cells. As a non-destructive technique, it allows an easy, highly accurate way to take a sample, create a chemical composition map and better understand films’ barrier properties, structural integrity and layers. It has broad applicability and works using conventional microscope optics.

There are, of course, limitations to the approach, as well. Fluorescent components or impurities in a sample can emit a photoluminescent background that overwhelms the Raman scattering. Samples can also be damaged by the laser if too much power is used, or the sample absorbs light at the laser wavelength. Samples that do fluoresce and samples that are photolabile act as common interferences for the RS method. In many cases, these interferences can be overcome with the proper choice of laser and sampling techniques. Additionally, while RS provides an accurate analysis of laminated films, the technique cannot be used on metals or metallic compounds (which can be assessed using scanning electron microscopy or light optical microscopy) or organic pigments or ink layers (which can be assessed with other infrared techniques).

Using RS for Food Packaging

RS can offer a variety of insights for food packaging films:

  • Failure analysis. If a plastic used for a heat seal in a fruit or yogurt cup fails, it could result in a mess for manufacturers, stores or the consumer. Exposure to air or elements could also lead to spoilage, particularly for refrigerated foods. Inconsistent plastic packaging could result in weak points that break, crack or puncture, which could also result in mold, mess or other spoilage concerns. If a manufacturer experiences a failure in a heat seal or packaging leading to leakage or spoilage, RS analysis can help determine why the failure occurred (was in the plastic film or something else) to help prevent future issues.
  • Supply chain validation. It is extremely important that the plastic films coming from suppliers are what they are promising and what the manufacturer needs. RS analysis can be used to determine the chemical make-up and morphology of packaging to confirm a supplier’s claims before proceeding with use of the film in food packaging and products.
  • Simple decision making. If a manufacturer is trying to decide which material to use, RS can provide answers. For example, if there is a need for moisture non-permeating films and there are multiple options available, an RS chemical map can illustrate what to expect with each option, aiding in the decision-making process when combined with other known factors such as cost or timing. If there is an additive in the food product that may diffuse into the film, RS can determine which material might best resist the potential problem.
  • Packaging appearance. If there is a swirl or haze in the packaging, RS can compare the area with the issue to a clear section to determine if the defect in the film is a foreign polymer or an inorganic pigment or filler, identifying the source of the problem.

RS analysis provides a wealth of information in a manner that is non-destructive. Giving a chemical fingerprint to identify composition with extremely good spatial resolution gives manufacturers valuable information that can be used to mitigate issues, correct problems or make important decisions. These actions in turn can help ensure food safety, which builds brand image and manufacturer equity. Ultimately, RS analysis can play an important role in the success of a product, a brand or a company.