What To Know About Bone Fragments in Food: How, Why + More

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fresh meat in vacuum sealed packed on table

When consumers chow down on chicken breasts or a nice juicy steak, they’re not expecting to bite into a piece of bone. In the best-case scenario, bone fragments in food are a minor annoyance that can turn off diners. Bone fragments can also be a serious hazard that may cause choking, throat lacerations, and even death.

As a meat producer, you are responsible for ensuring that your products are free from bone shards that could hurt consumers. Below, find tips to assist you with managing bone fragments in food.

What Is Bone Fragment Contamination in Food?

Bone fragment contamination, by definition, is the inclusion of bone particles in meat products that should be bone-free. Boneless chicken breasts, sausages, bacon, and certain cuts of beef should not include any bones in the final product.

Bone contamination can also occur in non-meat products. If your company produces ground beef and milk, for instance, bones could end up in milk jugs because of equipment failures or operator errors.

Common Sources of Bone Fragment Contaminants in Food Processing

butcher deboning fresh pork meat

Preventing bone contamination in food starts with recognizing some of the most common sources of contaminants. Causes may include mistakes made during deboning, contamination during slaughter, and problems with machinery. We explore each of these sources in more detail below.

Processing Machinery

Processing machinery is what turns meat into your final product. Bone contamination can occur at any stage as the product moves down the production line.

Contamination may be more likely if you rely on inexperienced workers to operate your machinery. Such workers may inadvertently introduce bone fragments into food or fail to catch errors before the meat reaches the packaging stage.

Deboning Process

Does your business rely on automated or manual deboning? Both methods can leave bone fragments in food.

Automated deboning uses machinery to do the hard work. Many businesses prefer automated deboning because it’s quicker than relying on human hands. Business owners also assume that deboning machinery is more reliable. However, if something goes wrong with deboning equipment, it can leave potentially hazardous bone fragments in food.

Experienced workers are more likely to notice and remove bone fragments before it’s too late to resolve the issue. However, in meat processing plants where employees must work quickly, there’s a risk of workers overlooking bone fragments.

Contamination During Slaughter

Slaughtering animals is messy, and bone pieces can end up where they shouldn’t. Inexperienced processors can also miss bone fragments hidden within certain cuts of meat. This is a big problem for companies that produce highly processed meat, such as sausage and ground beef.

Equipment Wear and Tear

When was the last time you inspected and performed maintenance on your equipment? If it’s been a while, bones could end up in your food because of equipment wear and tear.

If you’re serious about controlling the presence of bones in food, you must keep up with an equipment maintenance schedule. This involves inspecting mixers, cutters, conveyor belts, and all other parts of the production line from beginning to end. You can hire specialized inspection and maintenance companies to do this for you if you like.

Potential Hazards of Bone Fragments in Food

child eating golden brown chicken nugget

Bone fragments in food can spell big trouble for your business. Potential risks include:

  • Consumer safety. Biting down on a bone can break teeth, and bones present a serious choking hazard, especially for young children and the elderly. Sharp bones can also cause lacerations to the throat, stomach, and intestines.
  • Consumer perception of your brand. If consumers find bone fragments in your products, expect your reputation to take a big hit. Once you’ve lost that trust, it’s hard to get it back.
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture violations. Per the USDA, mechanically separated livestock meat can have bone fragments no larger than 0.5 millimeters by 0.85 millimeters. The maximum allowed bone size for mechanically separated poultry is 1.5 millimeters by 2.0 millimeters.

Prevention Strategies to Minimize Bone Fragments

The detection of bone fragments in food is easier than dealing with a product recall or costly lawsuit. Follow these safety measures for bone particles in food:

  • Train all staff on properly identifying bone fragments and removing them from food. Also, ensure staff wear protective gear properly. Anyone handling food in your facility should not process it without wearing the proper protective equipment.
  • Determine critical control points (CCPs) in your food production process. These include any stages where it is possible to prevent, eliminate, or reduce hazards to acceptable levels. CCPs may include chilling, chemical testing, formulation control, and biological hazard detection.
  • Consider keeping bones with the carcass after fabrication, as one popular national fast food chain does. This allows employees to instantly know whether bones are missing so that they can quarantine the product and quickly resolve the situation.
  • Regularly clean your machinery and equipment. Bones stuck in equipment can end up in food if you don’t remove them.
  • Invest in an x-ray machine for bone particle detection. X-ray equipment inspects food as it passes through the line and alerts you if it detects bone fragments. Be sure to purchase x-ray equipment with an appropriate sensitivity, as not all models are capable of finding bones.
  • Learn how to calibrate your x-ray machine. Your machine should be sensitive enough to locate bones but not so overly sensitive that you have a high number of false positives. If you’re unsure how to perform calibration, ask the x-ray equipment manufacturer to guide you through the process.

Impact on Consumer Safety and Perception

woman buying sausage in supermarket

As mentioned above, bone fragments in food can damage your company’s reputation. This is especially true when the contamination is so widespread that it prompts a recall.

For instance, in 2023, a national meat packaging company faced a recall of more than 16,000 pounds of sausage products due to bone contamination. In 2022, a seafood company was forced to recall products due to bone fragments in its fish sandwiches.

Although no one was injured by these bone fragments, both companies’ reputations may have taken a hit. Having to recall contaminated products means that consumers may be less likely to trust your brand in the future.

Technological Innovations for Bone Fragment Removal

Gone are the days when food processors had to manually inspect each item on the line for bone fragments. In 2011, researchers developed an optical imaging system that was able to successfully identify bone fragments hidden in boneless, skinless chicken breast filets.

This system was able to detect bone fragments greater than two centimeters in length with 100% accuracy. However, it had a false positive rate of 10% due largely to the fatty material in the meat.

Food X-Ray Machine as the Primary Method for Detecting Meat Bone Fragments

Currently, the best way to detect bone fragments in food is through the use of x-ray machinery. These systems can detect bones, cartilage, and other contaminants in whole, shredded, and minced meat, regardless of their size and location.

If you’d like to learn more about eliminating bone fragments from food, reach out to TDI Packsys at (877) 834-6750. We offer a full range of x-ray detection systems, color sorters, and food metal detectors to help your business stay compliant with FDA and USDA regulations.

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