Tag Archives: foreign material contamination

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).
Chris Keith, FlexXray
FST Soapbox

COVID-19: We’re In This Together

By Chris Keith
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Chris Keith, FlexXray

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on industries and individuals around the world. According to the World Health Organization, as of June 21, 2020, there have been 8,708,008 reported cases of COVID-19 globally, including 461,715 deaths. In a recent article by Forbes, healthcare contributor William Haseltine stated that we are gathering personal stories and statistics right now around COVID-19 survivors who have suffered permanent injuries from the virus. Many experts believe that COVID-19 is also an economic downturn trigger. Author and financial planner Liz Frazier says that even as recessions are a normal part of the U.S. economic cycle, lasting about five and a half years on average, the possibility of a recession starting due to the outbreak would be unprecedented.1 The COVID-19 pandemic is a natural disaster that rocked the world and is a reminder of how connected people are in a global economy.

As quarantine regulations and temporary closures happened across the United States, businesses had to mobilize quickly, pivoting their strategies, distribution efforts, products and beyond to accommodate the new safety measures and external pressures. The food and beverage industry was no different. Although food manufacturers were deemed essential in the United States by Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), manufacturers had to adapt to a new normal during the shutdown.2 Some of the biggest changes that occurred in the food manufacturing industry include fluctuating customers, prices, product and ingredient availability, packaging, distribution, and food quality and safety.

Shifting Demand, Customers and Food Pricing

Sharp changes in food prices and product availability shocked supply and demand and impacted the entire food supply chain across the United States. According to the USDA, there were record levels of demand for food at grocery stores, and, on the supply side, there has been a reduced supply of meat products over the period of quarantine as meatpacking plants faced temporary closures, decreased slaughter pace, and slower production due to COVID-19 regulations.3 Poultry prices took a sharp dip and have been rebounding, hot dog prices are at an all-time high due to increased demand, and beef prices have been climbing due to scarce supply and limited fresh production. Food pricing fluctuation is one of the largest food industry impacts felt directly by the general public and the on-premise sector. Restaurants and bars were crushed by the skyrocketing ingredient prices and mandatory temporary closures due to COVID-19.

As restaurants, school cafeterias and hotels were temporarily shut down due to quarantine restrictions, the food manufacturing industry’s most prominent customers practically disappeared. Before COVID-19, the USDA reported that in 2018, restaurants provided approximately 50% of meals consumed on a daily basis, up from 41% in 1984.4 When COVID-19 hit, consumer trends showed a monumental shift to eating at home. During the height of the pandemic, more people ordered take out from fast-casual dining places and ate from home. A recently published study reveals survey findings that suggest American’s food habits are shifting, as 54% of respondents confirmed they are cooking more, and 46% of respondents, baking more.5 As customers and demand changed, products and packaging had to follow suit.

Scores of manufacturing facilities had to rapidly respond with different products to meet changing consumer demand, despite already being in mid-production for products for restaurant kitchens, cafeterias, and the like. Most of these large-scale and wholesale products would never make it to their original, intended destinations. Manufacturers swiftly adapted their production, creating retail-ready goods from product made or intended for restaurant or fast food supply. These food production facilities had to creatively find ways to change product packaging sizes, salvaging good product with take-home cartons and containers. Some processors pre-sliced deli meat for grocery stores around the country, as markets were unable to slice the meat in-store, dealing with restrictions on the number of people who could work at any given time. The food manufacturing industry showed great ingenuity, repurposing food and getting creative in order to keep the country fed and bridge the gap in convenience shopping that consumers have grown used to.

New Distribution Pressures

There were also disruptions in the food industry’s distribution channel, and the logistics of distribution were adversely affected. Facilities faced increased pressure to have tighter production turnarounds from new consumer behavior and out-of-stock situations as many markets dealt with temporary panic shopping at the beginning of the crisis. Food manufacturing facilities have always faced tight deadlines when dealing with fresh and refrigerated product. However, COVID-19 introduced new critical, immediate needs to the food supply, and, more than ever before, facilities were pressed for time to deliver. Some facilities didn’t have enough dock loading time, and certain cold storage facilities could not meet the raised demands for dock times, making it harder to get product through the distribution channel to consumers. Shipping and logistics came at a premium. Drivers and logistics companies were at capacity with their service offerings, and unable to mobilize to meet the needs of every manufacturing company.

On top of the pressures from consumer demand, manufacturing facilities had to procure PPE (personal protective equipment) in mass for all employees and adjust employee schedules to meet new national and state-wide quarantine restrictions that strained the system. The PPE requirements are part of the distribution logistics, as plants are unable to distribute safe product without adhering to the system’s regulations. Senior Vice President of Regulatory and Environmental Affairs for the National Milk Producers Federation, Clay Detlefsen, said in an article for Food Shot Global that the whole food industry’s system has been turned on its head, as manufacturers are concerned that if they start running out of PPE and sanitation supplies, they would ultimately be forced into shutting down their food processing plants.6

Regulating Food Quality and Safety

Perhaps one of the biggest concerns surrounding the food supply chain during the height of COVID-19 for both producers and consumers was food safety. While safety and quality are always a high priority in the food industry, rising concern around the transmission of COVID-19 became a new and unprecedented challenge for food quality experts. In February the FDA declared that COVID-19 is unlikely to pass through food or food packaging, but that didn’t stop public concern.7 It was critical for food manufacturers and producers to ease public fear, keep the food supply stable and eliminate foreign material contamination that would adversely affect consumers and brand reputation. A mass recall due to foreign material contamination would have dire consequences for the strained food supply chain during this historic crisis. At the same time, the pandemic limited quality and food safety teams, as key teams had to work remotely, shift schedules had to drastically change to meet new safety regulations, production lines cut in half, and quality and safety teams had to make rushed decisions when it came to reworking product.

Some plants that faced potential foreign material contamination risked sending their product into distribution without a thorough rework, up against tight deadlines. And some plants adopted a multifaceted strategy and did something they’ve never done before: Reworked product on hold for potential foreign material contamination themselves. Many of these companies reworked product with their extra available lines, to keep as many of their workers as possible, despite the fact that food production employees are untrained in finding and extracting foreign contaminants. Inline detection machines are also typically limited to metal detection, often incapable of consistently catching many other types of contaminants such as glass, stones, plastic, bone, rubber, gasket material, container defects, product clumps, wood and other possible missing components. Food safety is of the utmost importance when a crisis hits as the food supply chain is crucial to our success as a nation and as an interconnected world. Facing new pressures on all sides, the food industry did not neglect food safety and quality, even while adopting new strategies. There was never a doubt that the industry would overcome the new challenges.

Looking Forward

The food industry has rapidly switched business strategies, swiftly turned around new products, found new ways to align product traceability and work remotely while still meeting industry standards and production expectations. Manufacturing facilities repackaged and repurposed food to keep the country fed, maintained job security for many employees and procured PPE in mass. The food industry is also full of manufacturers and plants that accomplished things they’ve never done before. There are shining examples of heroism in the food and beverage space as a growing list of food businesses, restaurants and delivery services have donated to healthcare workers on the front lines. Many large companies donated millions of dollars and pounds of food to feed their teams, their communities and the less fortunate.8 In the midst of a large obstacle, we have reached new heights and discovered new capabilities.

The challenges aren’t over. The food industry is still facing the effects of COVID-19 shutdowns on businesses even during this period of re-opening in different parts of the country. A lot of places and companies have been hit hard, some even closing their doors for good. Forbes reported at the onset of the pandemic that Smithfield Foods shut down one of its pork processing plants after hundreds of the plant’s 3,700 employees tested positive for coronavirus.8 Tyson Foods also shut down several meat processing plants under threat of the virus.8 Smithfield and Tyson were not the only ones. Food Dive has a compiled tracking system for coronavirus closures in food and beverage manufacturing facilities, recording reduced production, temporary closures, and permanent shutdowns across the industry. We expect some of the COVID-19 challenges to alleviate over time and hope that business will slowly return to normal and previously closed facilities will be able to re-open. However, we strongly hope some changes to the industry will remain: Creativity, ingenuity, resilience, adaptability, and a strong commitment to customers and partners. The bottom line is we’re in this together––together, we’re resilient.

References

  1. Frazier, L. (April 21, 2020). “How COVID-19 Is Leading The US Into A New Type Of Recession, And What It Means For Our Future.” Forbes.
  2. Krebs, C. (May 19, 2020). “Advisory Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response.” Homeland Security Digital Library.
  3.  Johansson, R. (May 28, 2020) “Another Look at Availability and Prices of Food Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic.” USDA.
  4. Stewart, H. (September 2011). “Food Away From Home.” The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Food Consumption and Policy. 646–666. Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199569441.013.0027
  5. The Shelby Report. (April 17, 2020). “New Study Reveals Covid-19 Impact On Americans’ Food Habits.”
  6. Caldwell, J. (April 16, 2020). “How Covid-19 is impacting various points in the US food & ag supply chain”. AgFunderNews.
  7. Hahn, M.D., S. (March 27, 2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Supply Chain Update. FDA.
  8. Biscotti, L. (April 17, 2020). “Food And Beverage Companies Evolve, Innovate And Contribute Amid COVID-19 Crisis.” Forbes.