X-ray food inspection technology is a valuable tool for food manufacturers, who use it to avert foreign material contamination issues that can result in recalls, lost business, loss of brand confidence and even lawsuits. X-ray food inspection helps protect your brand and your bottom line — and this guide will show you how.

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Table of Contents

The Growing Problem of Foreign Material in Food

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While food contamination caused by bacteria or chemicals grabs the most attention in headlines these days, in recent years greater emphasis is being placed on the problem of foreign material contamination. Yet despite this increased attention on the problem of physical contaminants, the presence of foreign material continues to be a problem for food manufacturers.

In 2016, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service reported that 11 percent of the total food recalled that year was due to extraneous material. One year later, 43 percent of recalls tracked by the FSIS were due to foreign materials — a 291 percent increase.

This raises the question of whether more foreign materials are making their way into our food supply, or if it’s simply a case of less tolerance by regulating industries of contamination. But the bigger question may be why, in a world where so many opportunities for detection exist, does this remain a problem?

The first step in solving the problem is identifying the many ways food contamination occurs. Foreign material contamination can come from internal equipment failures, such as machine parts that rub or break, and from human error during production. Physical contamination can happen when suppliers or vendors provide you with contaminated foods, or even through intentional sabotage from disgruntled employees.

More than 9 million pounds of food were recalled in 2017 as the direct result of an extraneous material being present. By comparison, 546,276 pounds were recalled due to listeria and 1,076 pounds were recalled as the result of salmonella. Recalls are costly, inefficient and can destroy a brand’s image. Any food manufacturer who faces a contamination issue wants to know how to resolve the problem quickly and with as little production disruption as possible.

The way to avoid that disruption is to prevent contaminated food from reaching consumers — and the best way to do that is through X-ray inspection.

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The Evolution of Food Safety Technology

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Food safety has been a concern for consumers since the early days of our industrialized food production system. As more processed foods have entered our world, so have greater risks for contamination.

From wires for cutting meat and cheese to metal flakes and fragments from cutting blades to nuts, bolts and rubber gaskets from machinery, there are many ways contaminants enter our food supply.

In the past few decades, X-ray detection has become a viable form of threat detection for food manufacturers. As technology improves and the costs drop, food manufacturers have more choice in how to approach their food safety options. The introduction of X-ray inspection as an offline service provides the ideal complement to inline inspection capabilities.

Since offline systems like FlexXray run at a slower rate with varying power supply, they can find even tinier foreign materials — down to 0.8 mm and smaller. At FlexXray, we use a custom-built system that leverages medical-grade technology that inline flat panel detectors can’t compete with. As technology continues to advance, so will innovations in food inspection — and so will the level of food safety enjoyed by consumers and manufacturers alike.

Types of Foreign Material Detection Systems

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There are three primary types of systems to detect foreign objects in your food. Here’s a look at those system and how each one works.
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Magnetic Separators

This is the simplest method for keeping unwanted materials out of your inventory. Magnetic separators can gather ferrous objects, which are objects that contain iron, and some stainless steal.

PROS
Designed for ease and efficiency, so they’re good for large production runs 
CONS
Can’t find nonferrous metallic items (aluminum, brass); ineffective for processed or packaged products
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Metal Detectors

Metal detectors locate metal contaminants in food as it passes through the manufacturing line. There are several brands of metal detectors which can be used in different types of food manufacturing environments.

PROS
Can locate an array of metals in finished products and dry products, both packaged and unwrapped
CONS
Can't identify non-metallic contaminants nor metallic contaminants that are poor conductors; factors such as fats, salts and moisture all cause problems for detectability and false-rejects
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X-ray Inspection Machines

These inspection machines use X-rays to locate foreign contaminants. Each machine uses a detector and programming algorithm to reject potential foreign contaminants on the basis of density difference. 

PROS
Designed for ease and efficiency, so they’re good for large production runs; able to detect all types of foreign objects
CONS
While the most cost-effective solution overall, upfront costs are higher than metal detectors or magnets

Understanding X-ray Food Inspection

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X-ray food inspection uses advanced X-ray technology to detect contaminants. X-ray food inspection technology can also monitor product integrity by checking fill levels, measuring mass, counting components or checking for products and packaging that have been damaged.

Like every other type of X-ray, it uses light waves to “see” beyond what our eyes can see. In this case, that means looking inside food products and packaging. X-rays base their reading on the density of the product, and each time those rays penetrate a product, some of the energy of the ray is lost.

When a foreign material is present, it loses even more energy. Sensors take images of this reading, which is how you get an X-ray or picture of what’s inside the food. Once you know what contamination is present and where it’s located, you have the power to correct the situation.

“Sensors take images of this reading, which is how you get an X-ray or picture of what’s inside the food.”

How X-ray Food Inspection Machines Work

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X-ray inspection machines detect many different types of physical contaminants. While metal is a major source of contamination in food, it’s not the only quality control hazard. Depending on the type of food, where it’s grown and what manufacturing process it goes through, food can become contaminated by rubber, bone, wood, stone, plastic, glass and more. Metal detectors can only detect metal, which means food contaminated with other hazards could be distributed to consumers, putting both customers and your company at risk.

X-ray inspection machines have become so sophisticated that they are able to not only find dense matter that doesn’t belong but even distinguish the difference between contaminants and anomalies like metal retaining clips or packaging. They can handle a variety of different formats, from cans and bottles to meat products and bulk food.

“X-ray inspection machines have become so sophisticated that they can not only find dense matter that doesn’t belong but can even distinguish the difference between contaminants and anomalies like metal retaining clips or packaging.”

Because it offers such an extreme level of efficiency and accuracy, many manufacturers now rely on X-ray inspection to ensure that products are not only meeting food safety guidelines and the standards of retailers, but are meeting the high standards of their own brand every time.

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How Safe Is X-ray Food Inspection?

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X-ray inspection is entirely safe and doesn’t harm food. In fact, food that passes through an X-ray inspection system spends very little time under an X-ray beam, which means it receives a minuscule dose of radiation during that time. Today’s equipment is more efficient than ever and can operate at as much as 70 percent lower wattage than the systems used a decade ago.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed that X-ray inspection doesn’t cause adverse effects to the food supply, nor does it change the taste, flavor or nutritional value of the inspected product. According to a study conducted by the World Health Organization, food can be exposed to more than 600 million X-ray scans without compromising any of its quality or safety.

 “X-ray inspection is entirely safe and doesn’t harm food.

Inline Equipment vs. FlexXray X-ray Food Inspection

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At FlexXray, we frequently get the question, “If I have an inline inspection machine at my plant, why should I use third-party X-ray inspection?” Comparing inline equipment to FlexXray's X-ray inspection machines is like comparing apples to oranges. Both inline systems and FlexXray's X-rays are designed to inspect food for contaminants; however, they don’t have the same capabilities.

Inline equipment has its place in the food manufacturing industry; it is essential in monitoring food to make sure that FMSA regulations are met. In some cases, these machines can flag product runs that show presence of a foreign material and let the manufacturer handle the next steps instead of facing the risk of putting contaminated product on the shelves.

In addition to X-ray equipment, food manufacturers may use other forms of detection, such as filter socks and inline screens that catch foreign materials in fluids. Metal detectors can be an effective way to find specific types of metal. Knowing what your inline equipment can (and can’t) do is an important part of your overall food safety management plan.

What Inspection Equipment Can 
(and Can’t) Do

  Can... Can't...
Metal detectors
...detect the presence of metal ...find other materials or be used to inspect products in aluminum-coating packing materials
Inline magnets, screens
...capture some physical contaminants ...be used for all food products
Inline X-ray inspection machines
...flag the presence of physical contaminants within products ...able to detect contaminants under 3 to 5mm; limited by the speed of the production line 
FlexXray X-ray inspection
...find particles down to 0.8mm and smaller; able to find materials such as stone, plastic, rubber, glass, bone and wood ...operate at production speeds

Why Should You Use FlexXray's Food Safety and Inspection Service?

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Even with your own inline inspection process in place, you need a third-party food safety and inspection service. Because the manufacturing line moves quickly, your system may indicate a contamination problem, but it can’t pinpoint exactly where that contaminant is or identify the issue.

You may end up disposing of more product than is necessary, or you’ll incur additional costs to re-run the bracketed product through your inline inspection machines at a slower pace.

Manufacturers can’t afford to have their lines slowed down for quality control practices, but FlexXray's inspection system can pick up where your equipment leaves off.

FlexXray’s custom medical grade X-ray technology can detect metal, glass particles, stones, bone, rubber, plastic, gasket material, container defects, wood and other foreign materials. And, because we document every step of the process to your specifications, you’ll have complete traceability and be better prepared to pinpoint how the contamination occurred.

Contamination is an unfortunate inevitability in the food manufacturing industry. When it does occur, you need a trusted ally who can step in quickly to resolve your issue.

Download our X-ray food inspection case study, “What Should I Do If I Have a Foreign Material Problem?”

Let us show you how X-ray food inspection can help resolve your foreign material problems.

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What is the Cost of X-ray Food Inspection?

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FlexXray's X-ray inspection service is a fraction of the cost of a food recall, which averages nearly $10 million per instance. In addition to upfront expenses, the consequences of damaging your brand reputation can go much deeper.

While there are other options available, the cost of inspection remains significantly less than any other solution. Destruction of the full product run ultimately means disposal costs, remanufacturing costs and the costs of out-of-stock lost sales. An in-house re-inspection runs a risk of not finding the contaminant at the cost of lost labor and overtime.

FlexXray's X-ray inspection and contaminant retrieval services are the most cost-effective and lowest-risk option as they ensure that the specific contaminant is located and removed at minimal cost to the manufacturer.

So, what are your options during a food contamination crisis?

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Option 1: Dispose of the full product run

  • Essentially doubles the cost of a production run (including costs of ingredients, packaging and labor)
  • Slotting fees and/or out-of-stock penalties from retailers
  • Disposal costs
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Option 2: Shut down your production lines for re-inspection/re-work

  • Costs of labor and overtime
  • May still have to absorb the cost of another option
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Option 3: Risk it and ship the product to retailers

  • Potential cost to brand reputation
  • Potential recall costs
  • Potential third-party inspection costs
  • Potential litigation costs
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Option 4: Use X-ray inspection with FlexXray

  • Cost of shipping the product to the X-ray facility
  • Cost of inspection

How Does the FlexXray Food Inspection Process Work?

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To avoid foreign material issues, it’s essential to develop a plan that covers every possible threat to food safety within your facility. It’s equally important to have an X-ray inspection partner in place who can detect any foreign materials that might contaminate your food.

The FlexXray inspection process can identify many different foreign materials and help you take steps to resolve the issue. In today’s world, it’s important to have a trusted partner who can handle food contamination issues with your product quickly and discreetly. At FlexXray, we pride ourselves on being that partner to more than 900 food manufacturing facilities throughout North America.

The FlexXray food inspection process is actually quite simple and can be broken down into three steps.

When you determine that you may have an issue with foreign contaminants, call FlexXray to discuss the situation. We can perform free capability testing within an hour of receiving the sample and provide inspection costs and facility/rental options immediately.
 
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You ship your product to FlexXray and we conduct the x-ray inspection to your directed specifications; removing product that is suspected of being contaminated.
 
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We return the clean product to you for distribution on or ahead of schedule.
 
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The Future of X-ray Food Inspection

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As threats to food safety increase, manufacturers need X-ray inspection to protect their brand reputation and the future of their business. Manufacturers who use FlexXray for their X-ray inspection needs have greater confidence in the safety of their product.

X-ray inspection is the ideal solution for today’s increasingly complex food industry. With such things as multi-texture foods and the increasing presence of superfruits in certain foods, the X-ray industry is working to better identify such ingredients to prevent false identification of foreign materials. As the industry becomes more sophisticated, so do the tools required to safeguard it.

Compliance will always be a concern for food producers, and as the regulations surrounding food and drug safety continue to tighten, the ability for traceability throughout the stages of your food’s life cycle is increasingly important. Full compliance requires complete traceability, and the ability to implement X-ray inspections is the most effective tool to ensure your company is producing not just the best product it can, but the safest.

“X-ray inspection is the ideal solution for today’s increasingly complex food industry.”

Talk to an X-ray Food Inspection Expert

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The safety of your product is only as good as the processes you have in place. Adding an extra layer of protection through X-ray food inspection gives you the ability to guarantee compliance and make better decisions for the future of your company.

See what FlexXray can do for you. Fill out the form to contact an X-ray food detection expert today.