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The need to equip meat and poultry processing lines with inspection systems is more pressing than ever. Heightened consumer awareness and tighter food safety regulations require processors to be strategic about where they integrate inspection equipment. Although catching contaminants at the start of any food processing line is the most cost-effective solution, it is critical to assess and regularly review production risks in context. Ensuring there are no HACCP gaps and that all the essential inspection points are covered.

Phil Brown, Managing Director at Fortress Technology Europe examines the benefits of having a longer-term strategic investment plan; the hidden and frequently overlooked risks on meat and poultry lines; ways to prevent, eliminate or reduce microbiological, hygiene and physical contaminants; and how to spread machinery inspection assets out across production lines to address HACCP-holes.

Rise of the recalls

“Zero brand recalls in the past does not mean immunity to future threats,” cautions Phil. As meat production rises, so does the frequency of recalls due to contamination. Listeria, Salmonella and foreign bodies in processed meats remain the top culprits.

The impact of these incidents can significantly damage brand value. After food safety, most food manufacturers rank ‘company reputation’ their most pressing concern. A product recall can cost upwards of £1 million, with one study finding that 55% of consumers would temporarily switch brands following a food recall. These issues can be safeguarded by being strategic when selecting high-contaminant-risk checkpoints and inspection equipment.

Soaring farmgate costs

Farmgate input costs have reached unprecedented levels. The projected price increase for animal feed and medicine, fuel and power, and fertilisers is estimated to rise by 36%, 43% and 134%, respectively.[i] For meat and poultry producers, it can be hard to justify the loss of valuable, expensive product if contaminants could have been caught and actioned upstream.

Additionally the current cost of living crisis has resulted in consumers now viewing meat as a luxury. As a result, meat and poultry producers are feeling even higher pressure to deliver contaminant-free products and prevent irreparable brand-damaging recalls.

Saving money vs. saving face

An inspection system can be integrated almost anywhere along a meat and poultry processing line. Most commonly, processors will choose end-of-line checkweighing and contaminant inspection technology after meat products have been prepared and packaged. Functioning as a final safeguard, at this phase there is virtually zero possibility of a new contaminant being introduced. However, if products are rejected, the costs incurred as a result of wasted food, labour and packaging can be exponentially higher.

Although Metal Detection offers superior sensitivity on foil, product effect common in meat products can potentially limit the variety of contaminants it can find. Equally, X-Ray systems can be technically challenged on high-speed processing lines.

Establishing your biggest contaminant risks and most cost-efficient CCPs and inspection solutions all help to ensure a robust HACCP-compliant food safety strategy. Delivering maximum profitability and avoiding costly waste.

Foreign matter fears

There are multiple sources that can introduce contaminants into meat and poultry processing lines. Foreign matter, especially metal, may be present in incoming raw produce. Because animals must be slaughtered as part of the production process, they frequently arrive at manufacturing plants already bearing contamination.

The nature of foreign bodies in meat is slightly different from other food types. Whilst imported meat may contain the usual contaminant culprits, metal, glass, plastic, wood or stone, they also contain bones. If a product is sold as “boneless”, these intrinsic foreign bodies are considered undesirable and potentially dangerous.

Other processes involved with handling the produce, such as cutting, trimming, deboning, mincing or grinding, can potentially introduce contaminants. Some bones may go undetected to the naked eye and metal-to-metal contact in devices can result in metal shards. If processing equipment is not properly maintained, it also augments the risk of metal parts or flakes simply breaking off onto products.

If contaminants are undetected at full size early on, smaller pieces can end up being dispersed throughout an entire batch. Harder and larger contaminants could also damage processing equipment, resulting in downtime, expensive repairs or even machinery replacements.

The final contaminant risk is biological pathogens. Bacteria multiplies every 20-30 minutes depending on the conditions, and prefers high protein foods, especially in liquid form. With compliance demanding the highest levels of sanitation, it’s important for meat and poultry processors to integrate hygienic, easy-to-clean inspection systems that prevent cross-contamination.

Prevent before you pack

Supplier weight checks can help to safeguard against under or overweight meat. For high value produce, this checkweighing verification becomes even more imperative. Bulk checkweighers can be utilised to efficiently monitor incoming stock and return rates, ensuring processors are receiving the exact weight, volume or quantity ordered. The most robust case weighers can accurately verify the weight of incoming ingredients in formats up to 50 kgs. Additionally, some processors may wish to utilise bulk metal detectors to inspect at this initial primary processing stage, reducing the risk of potential contaminants early on and mitigating damage to down-line processing equipment.

Prior to packaging, the raw produce may be manipulated and interact with a variety of processing equipment. Inspecting for contaminants at this stage allows for the possibility of rejected produce, once the contaminant is removed, to be reintroduced. During this stage of production, X-Ray equipment can be useful to detect non-metallic foreign matter, especially in products labelled as “boneless”.

In-line checkweighing is also extremely valuable. These checkweighers are usually located directly before packaging, assisting in verifying correct portioning and helping reduce costly giveaway.

For meat applications such as sausages, chicken nuggets, beef patties, pâtés, meat sauces etc. a pipeline metal detector is the safest, most hygienic option. A Meat Pump is designed to assist in inspecting high-viscosity meats for metal contaminants in a sanitary environment, without compromising detection sensitivity.

To beat the spread of foodborne pathogens accumulating in industrial meat processing environments and avoid cross-contamination, a pump pipeline should be designed with minimal places where meat residue, water ingress and bacteria can build up and potentially get embedded in pipes and crevices. Additionally, they should be able to withstand high-pressurised washdowns after every product changeover.

Due to its highly conductive nature and high iron content, meat generates signals that can mistakenly be interpreted by a metal detector as a contaminant. Additionally, bubbles and voids in the product flow can trigger false rejects, leading to increased waste and needless production downtime. To overcome this product effect, a Meat Pump should address these challenges by applying powerful digital signal processing technology to clearly distinguish the signal generated by a metal contaminant from the product being inspected. 

Spice up your line

During further processing, meat and poultry may be coated in seasonings. To guarantee a consistent and accurate spread, a Loss-In-Weight depositor can be utilised to control the distribution of inclusions. These systems dispense a variety of free-flowing materials by weight, onto conveyorised products. In comparison to sieving spices and herbs by hand, a Loss-In-Weight depositor can result in a 50% reduction in waste and help prevent spoiled products.

Phil highlights, “In terms of efficiency and control, automating this process leads to considerable savings on what is a highly-repetitive, labour-intensive task. For example, by hand, it is impossible to maintain a consistent 1 gram dispensing rate.” 

For burgers or products like meatballs, an in-line checkweigher may also be advisable. Connecting to automatic portion control machines, individual pieces that are off target weight can be removed and reworked. Programmed software can also provide corrective feedback.

End-of-line safeguards

For a GFSI-certified business with a continuous-improvement mindset, adhering to best food safety practices is of utmost importance. The number-one requirement for all food manufacturers is to ensure products are safe for consumption. Inspecting products after packaging using an end-of-line Metal Detection and/or X-Ray system is the most important CCP. It is also a retailer COP requirement.

The most common high-risk contamination culprit in food processing remains metal. However, X-Ray machines, including X-Ray Pipelines may be advisable if there are specific risks, for example potential contaminants like bone that won’t be detected using a metal detector. Phil explains: “Both x-ray and metal detection systems offer distinct advantages. A manufacturer always needs to factor in their biggest contaminant risks. It’s equally critical to understand that product effect for each type of meat – minced, large joints, cooked, frozen, etc. – can vary and behave differently in a metal detector.”

To comply with global Weights and Measures Regulations, meat products packed to a set weight need to be verified. A checkweigher can be integrated with both Metal Detectors and X-Ray to ensure each product meets the nominal weight. Using a retail-spec combination systems can also ensure compliance with individually-defined COPs.  Mounting a Checkweigher on the same conveyor as a Metal Detector or X-Ray results in a far smaller footprint than stand-alone units would occupy.

Where there might appear to be a need for multiple machines to cope with the increase in upstream output, Fortress recommends closely examining the options. For example, could a multi-lane system offer a better return on investment in a smaller footprint? Is it possible to channel multiple product lanes through a larger aperture? What sort of reject system do you require?

Robust recordkeeping

Collating live OEE data and reporting results directly to QA and technical personnel is increasingly imperative on fast-moving meat and poultry processing lines. For traceability and audit purposes, records must be retained in order to verify that each system is performing to UK retailer COP standards and to prove that inspection procedures are being followed consistently and correctly. Additionally, unannounced or virtual audits mean that documentation needs to be readily available at all times.

Advanced software enables fast, reliable and easy product set up and reporting. To assist, Fortress automatically pre-programmes every UK retailer COP that exists into the machine menu. These standards stipulate what type of inspection system should be used, how it should ensure rejected products are removed from the line, how the system should ‘fail safely’ and target sensitivities for different Metal Detector and X-Ray aperture sizes.

Automatic testing is also advisable. These are available for use on pipeline and conveyor Metal Detectors to eliminate human errors and save time. One of the key benefits of automatic testing is food safety and QC standards are maintained, in many cases improved upon, without compromising production. The results from tests are automatically logged and digitally stored for GFSI audits.

Stay strategic

HACCP guidance states that critical control points (CCPs) should be located at any step where hazards can be prevented, eliminated, or reduced to acceptable levels. Every food processor’s needs are different. The same applies to products.

Rather than looking for patterns, examine potential CCP-holes. This is even more critical if a production process or packaging is changing.  An annual HACCP assessment – a requirement for most meat and poultry facilities – will help to ensure all essential inspection points are covered and, most importantly, retail-compliant.