Detecting Danger: Metal Detection in the Food Packaging Industry

frwtThe food packaging industry is a global powerhouse, making up for more than a third of the world’s packaging market. The industry has been well established in western nations for many years. However, Asia, South America and the Middle East are all undergoing economic changes, which include a shift dietary preferences towards processed foods, especially amongst urban populations. As such, the food packaging industry is growing at the global scale, though there has been a slight decline in western markets as customers turn increasingly towards ‘healthy’ food trends.

Nevertheless, the North American and European food packaging industries remain the world leaders of the packaging market at this time. Furthermore, recent government-mandated changes to food safety regulations in countries such as Canada and the United States also demonstrate that the food packaging industry is still of importance to these countries, both now and into the future. These new policies have a particular focus on preventing problems rather than dealing with the aftermath of events such as major product recalls. As such, many companies must now put even more emphasis on food safety, testing for everything from harmful pathogens to shards of metal in packaged goods.

Food packaging sectors

The food packaging market is vast. It includes everything from convenience foods such as TV dinners, confectionaries like chocolate and candy, dairy products, produce, meat and sauces/dressings. Product preference varies from country to country, as does the packaging material of choice. With plastic, paper, metal, glass and cardboard options to choose from, the same product may not necessarily be packaged in the same way for two separate markets.

Food packaging and metal contamination

No matter what the product or the packaging, food safety must be a number one priority. From the packaging material to the manufacturing, transportation and storage environments, it is of utmost importance to ensure that possible contamination sources are eliminated. Without proper equipment and safety procedures in place, it can be difficult to control for contamination. For instance, consider just how many times food products may come into contact with metal over the course of the manufacturing process.

Whether the product is liquid, paste, fresh or frozen, pastry or seafood, metal detectors can help eliminate dangerous contaminants from packaged foods. Contaminants can include ferrous metals, non-ferrous metals and stainless steel. All three types are highly prevalent in the manufacturing industry, which is why it is important to test for them.

Ferrous metals can include carbon steel, often used for making commonly used tools such as drill bits. Non-ferrous metals include aluminium, copper, brass, silver and lead. Stainless steel, which is the most difficult metal to detect, is also widely used in the food manufacturing industry for everything from food preparation to storage and transportation.

Commonly used metal detectors

There are two main types of industrial metal detectors used throughout the food manufacturing industry.

The first is known as the “balanced coil” metal detector. Balanced coil detectors are good for general purpose use, and can detect all three types of metal contaminants in range of different products. They work on everything from fresh and frozen goods, whether they are wrapped or unwrapped. Many such food grade metal detectors come in special configurations for different product types, in order to ensure the highest level of detection. For instance, some detectors are specially made for paste-like products, whereas others are suited for bulk products such as coffee or flour. In special cases, detectors can be customized in order to pick up on metal contaminants in typically difficult products such as seafood.

The second type of metal detector is known as the “ferrous-in-foil” metal detector. While these are not good for general purpose use, they are still very popular in the food manufacturing industry, as they can detect ferrous metal contaminants in foil-wrapped products. Of course, the ideal situation would be to pass products through a conventional metal detector prior to wrapping them in foil. An alternative would be to use x-ray detectors, which can also pick up on other contaminants including glass and bone.

Detector setup

Food grade metal detectors can be placed at several points along the production line. Typically, it’s important to place metal detectors at the end of the flow in order to make sure the final product is ready to leave the manufacturing floor uncontaminated. It’s also good practice to place a metal detector at the beginning of the production process to ensure that raw materials coming in are not already contaminated.

Some manufacturers choose to go a step further by placing metal detectors before particularly expensive processing equipment in order to protect them from potential damage. For instance, if a fragile blade were to attempt to process a large piece of stainless steel contaminant, the blade might break off. This could put nearby employees at risk of injury, destroy other equipment, and further contaminate food products.

It’s also important to train staff to complete regular testing routines, before the beginning of each shift, between product changes, and even hourly. Good testing practices facilitate product recalls, and minimizes the potential for damage by reducing the number of potentially contaminated products. Keep thorough documentation on hand in an easily accessible manner, so that all employees who are directly involved with the production process can quickly consult important information.

Should any difficult questions or problems arise, consult the equipment manufacturers to assist in coming up with a solution. Either way, they will undertake both the setup of the metal detectors, and any important maintenance processes. Metal detector manufacturers will also conduct annual safety inspections to ensure that the equipment is well calibrated and in good working condition. It is everybody’s job to ensure the safety of food products, including those who manufacture metal detectors for food industry use. By keeping good documentation, ensuring that staff are properly trained, and properly maintaining all equipment, companies can confidently provide food products that are safe for the employees who manufacture them and the consumers who trust in the quality of their purchases.

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