X-ray technology for food packaging can play an important role in brand and quality reputation. CIARAN MURPHY, Quality Control Business Manager, Ishida Europe, explains…
The voice of the consumer has never been more powerful. The growth of social media means that even the most minor complaint can be quickly shared with hundreds and thousands of potential customers.
Of course, the highest standards in product safety and quality are something that food retailers and producers have always adhered to. However, increased consumer awareness and expectations around food safety is continually raising the bar on foreign body detection requirements.
High-quality producers are also aware that product quality is more than just the prevention of foreign bodies. A deformed product, a missing item, even a damaged pack are all quality issues that can irritate consumers and see them taking to social media to air their grievances. Any quality complaint will have a negative impact on a brand’s reputation. The worst case scenario is a complete product recall, where the consequences can be severe – not just in the financial cost of managing the recall and any fines imposed by the retailer, but in the long-term effect it has on a brand.
Consumer research by Harris Interactive revealed that 55% of people would switch brands following a recall, even if only temporarily, and that 15% of them would never purchase the recalled product again. Worse still, 21% of people said they would actively avoid any product made by the manufacturer at the centre of a recall, not just the recalled
Food manufacturers are, therefore, increasingly taking a pro-active approach to all areas of quality control, putting
in place systems that ensure that not just safety issues but any potential quality problem are swiftly identified and dealt with before goods leave the factory. The focus was initially on metal detection, with the major risk deemed to
be from the many different metal components coming into contact with a product during the production and packing process. However, the potential for contamination is much wider than this and there are several non-metallic contaminants – glass, plastic, stone, rubber, shell and even bone in meat fillets – that are also likely to cause a significant quality issue.
In this scenario, it is the versatility of X-ray inspection systems in being able to detect a wider variety of foreign bodies, including all the above-mentioned items, that is leading to X-ray technology being adopted for many food packing applications.
X MARKS THE SPOT
Another example of the flexibility of X-ray technology is its ability to work undeterred in even the harshest of environments, such as humid and wet atmospheres and extreme hot and cold temperatures. Foreign bodies can be
detected through aluminium foil and also in tins, regardless of the temperature or the salt and water content of the product – which is not the case for metal detectors. The machines can handle a variety of pack formats including top sealed and thermoformed trays and flexible bags as well as unpacked and bulk product.
The versatility of X-ray technology extends still further in its ability to spot other quality issues. The technology can detect broken, undersized or missing items in packs, be that six biscuit bars instead of seven or a row of ice lollies with one wooden stick missing; it can identify deformed product, for example a beef burger that has not been properly manufactured, and deformed packaging, such as a dented tin. Under-filled compartments in ready meals, product with cracks or fissures, grains stuck together in powdered products and missing metal clips are further examples of imperfections that can all be detected.
Additional quality control applications include product grading by length, and checking the presence of bottle caps and fill-levels.
X-ray inspection systems can also carry out effective weight estimation. And one of the advantages in this area against a more traditional weight check using a checkweigher is that they can spot a problem which weighing alone could not detect. If a pack is supposed to contain four pieces of meat of approximately the same weight but one piece is considerably overweight and one considerably under, then the total weight of the pack may still be correct but the end-consumer will not be satisfied with the overall pack contents.
Another major benefit of X-ray inspection is its ability to offer full traceability. In the event of a complaint, data management systems linked to X-ray inspection and labelling can enable retrieval of the X-ray image of a particular pack, establishing beyond doubt whether or not there was a problem. The fact that every image is captured means false claims can be quickly rejected.
Brand reputation is hard won but all-too-easily lost. The all-seeing ability of X-ray inspection technology can play a vital role in maintaining the high-quality standards that are so vital to establishing and maintaining consumer confidence and trust.
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