Ahead of the curve

by Ryan Atkinson
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Since the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law more than four years ago, food producers and manufacturers, along with their suppliers and allied partners, have been busy making sure their plans and procedures to ensure product safety are up to the challenge.

While technologies associated with product inspection have seen redesigns and improvements in the light of looming FSMA regulations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the suppliers of metal detection, X-ray and inline safety systems, as a whole, can say they were prepared.

“There are definitely advances in metal detection from a number of players across the industry, but it’s hard to tell whether these are a direct line to the new regulations, mainly because the prime metal detector suppliers have been anticipating this for years,” said Steve Gidman, president of Fortress Technology, Toronto. “We’re sort of ahead of the game and have been trying to encourage people to do some of the things that the new regulations are now enforcing.”

That approach has served those in the inline safety realm well, but it didn’t completely eliminate challenges and only highlighted the importance of staying on top of future changes.

“Product inspection suppliers have made technological advances to provide manufacturers with the most accurate means of contaminant detection,” said Kyle Thomas, strategic business unit manager for Eagle Product Inspection, Tampa, FL. “We need to ensure that the technologies consistently perform superior detection capabilities at high throughput rates.”

On the record

One of the biggest hurdles that FSMA regulations will provide for inline safety systems is the anticipated call for thorough recording and reporting of inspection data. Even then, it’s an example of how many producers are already proactive. Mr. Gidman said it’s something the industry has been “preaching for years.”

Todd Grube, manager of inspection systems for Heat and Control, Inc., Hayward, CA, which offers CEIA metal detection systems, shared those sentiments. He noted that supplying equipment to other industries helped that foreshadowing. “CEIA actually anticipated the food industry would have a greater need for inspection data management several years ago,” he said. “CEIA supplies metal detectors to a wide range of industries, including the pharmaceutical field, where FDA mandates stringent traceability requirements.”

But that early adoption, which may not be such a large leap from a solid HACCP program, doesn’t mean it has lessened the workload or challenges associated with providing thorough recording and reporting while optimizing production and maintaining ease of use. Mr. Gidman called it the biggest hurdle — how to go about testing and keeping the information about events, change logs, initial validation and more.

That adds up to a lot of procedures that then result in even more paperwork.

“The detector suppliers have tried to ease that load on the food manufacturers by automating as much of that as possible,” Mr. Gidman said. “In terms of the actual testing of the detectors, we’ve tried to make it easier, simpler and, in some cases, we can completely automate it. When you’ve got 15 or 20 metal detectors in a plant, and you look at how many times you have to test them and then keep those records, it gets expensive.”

Fortress’ attempt to alleviate that pressure resulted in automating both the test procedure and the record keeping. The same is true for Eagle and its SimulTask PRO software, which works with the company’s X-ray inspection systems. It collects real-time data and reports data which specify weights of products, number of products inspected, amount of rejects and the breakdown of the reject types between contaminations and other defects. Furthermore, production statistics, event logs, manually saved images and reject images are saved on a USB storage device and can easily be transferred or viewed on any computer.

“The Repository feature was designed to aid in the process of storing, viewing and transferring data,” Mr. Thomas said. “The HTML format allows these transferred records to be viewed through a Web browser. This offers compliance not only with FSMA but also HACCP principles and additional food safety regulations.”

A change in attitude

In addition to changing processes and, sometimes, equipment, FSMA, according to some in the inline safety world, has had an impact on the way food producers view the necessity of it all.

“It has changed the way that bakery and snack manufacturers now select their product inspection technologies: They are now looking to future-proof their investment,” Mr. Thomas said.

That process of “future proofing” was also one that Mr. Gidman spoke of. “Part of our point of view is always to stay ahead of the curve and anticipate what’s coming but also to build equipment that is what we call future-proof,” he said.

That process involves the engineering of equipment and lines to guard against the introduction of an unexpected technology or regulation. “They want to ensure that the system adheres to current legislation, plus will complement upcoming food safety changes,” Mr. Thomas said. “Aside from this, manufacturers face business pressures such as growing their top line and protecting their bottom line costs.”

Mr. Gidman suggested bakers plan for unexpected changes in regulations. “If something comes down the line a year or two from now that nobody saw coming, we will have hopefully built in some hooks into existing equipment that will prevent producers from having to throw it out and start over again,” he said. “Whatever technology is going to come along the line, you’d be able to retrofit it into your existing system. We try to make it easy to add those features into the historical unit.”

Not only has the way food manufacturers select technologies shifted, but the general outlook toward the entire process also has changed over the past half-decade or so. Historically, metal detection or X-ray systems have been a sort of stand-alone technology — a chunk of equipment on an island that took contamination off the line and threw it away.

“We’re starting to see a difference in how food producers approach it now as part of a whole system of preventative measures,” Mr. Gidman said. “They use it more as an investigation tool and a preventative tool rather than just a policeman that says, ‘Take it off the line.’ They’re actually using that information to improve their process and asking questions like ‘Where did that come from? Can we avoid that in the future?’ In my mind, that’s a really good result of the regulations.”

Staying ahead

Being ahead of regulations and seeing challenges in advance pays off. Mr. Grube pointed out CEIA’s THS/MS21 metal detector, which was introduced four years before FSMA guidelines began taking shape, as an example.

“It has reduced product waste and labor costs for re-inspection, particularly for makers of high product effect foods like tortillas and many frozen foods,” he said.

Mr. Gidman said features that some of the Fortress technology offer have turned into must-haves, although many food producers questioned their use when first seeing them. “Now they’re starting to say, ‘OK, maybe that would be a good idea.’ They’re starting to see that need.”

Now the challenge becomes keeping the industry in the future, so to speak. That ability can positively impact food producers and manufacturers of inline safety equipment alike.

“We’re starting to see even smaller plants that weren’t so sophisticated a few years ago getting to the same ­level as the bigger players in the industry,” Mr. Gidman said. “We’re seeing a more widespread application of sophistication, and that’s good for everyone.”

 

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