(Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the March/April print issue of Food Manufacturing)
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), signed into law in January of 2011, and updated several time since, places the responsibility for food safety squarely on food producers, with requirements that will come into force as all portions of the Act are finalized and implemented. FSMA also gives the FDA expanded authority in requiring recalls, which the agency has already used on numerous occasions.
One of the critical assets that food companies can use to comply with FSMA requirements is systematic, machine-based inspection of products and packages to detect and reject contaminated or otherwise non-compliant products or packaging, while maintaining accurate, complete records of those actions.
The Role of Automated Inspection Systems
Once a safety regimen is established, it is automated inspection systems that most effectively provide the means to control both contamination and other safety issues, ensure overall product and package quality and document the process and results.
Checkweighing systems weigh packaged products to ensure that stated package weights are accurate and to ensure packages are correctly filled. Underweight packages expose the company to regulatory penalties; overweight packages give away product. Weighing is done on the fly at production-line speeds and does not slow production.
Metal detection systems inspect products to ensure that they are free from metal contamination that may have been included in raw materials or dislodged from processing equipment (especially screens) during production. The newest systems employ Multi-simultaneous Frequency Technology to detect contamination reliably and without false rejects. Versions of these systems are available to inspect both products moving on conveyors or through pipelines.
X-Ray inspection systems inspect products for both metal and other types of contamination –– glass, bone, stone, certain plastics, etc. –– and remove contaminated products from the production line. The newest systems use highly sensitive detectors, which means that their X-ray generators require less power, reducing energy costs and extending unit life without affecting inspection capability.
Machine vision systems use cameras, lights and sophisticated software to inspect products, packages and labels for defects. Vision can detect malformed product, low or high fill levels of liquids or powders, cocked or insecure closures, incorrect labels or labels with wrinkles that cover vital ingredients, etc. These label inspections are critical capabilities, since the FDA reports that almost half of all recalls it orders are due to mislabeling, and especially to the omission of allergens from ingredient lists.
All inspection systems are designed to be as compact as possible so they fit into or over existing production lines, requiring no breaking into the line. Their controls interact with each other and with the control systems of the production line so that line speeds and inspection speeds are coordinated
Data collection systems instantly collect inspection and rejection data in a central location and make it available on demand in the event of a system performance review or an FDA inspection.
This capability is invaluable: it offers insight into the performance of your production operation, often pinpointing bottlenecks and other problem areas, facilitating continuous improvement efforts that lead to increased efficiencies.
Sophisticated, high-speed, efficient inspection equipment can be deemed costly when viewed as a capital cost. However, these are well-built machines that perform continuously and tirelessly for years. Viewed in terms of their long-term assurance of quality, product safety and protection against recalls and even liability lawsuits, they are in fact a wise investment that provides an almost immediate measurable return.
Robert Rogers, Senior Advisor for Food Safety and Regulation at METTLER TOLEDO Product Inspection Group, serves as a subject matter expert to various regulatory and industry organizations such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) and writes articles and blogs about this critical industry issue. He can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at (813) 342-9138.