Common Misconceptions About Food Inspection

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fresh vegetables on table in laboratory for food inspection

You may think you know just about everything there is to know about food safety, but is it possible you have a misconception about food inspections? Food safety guidelines change from time to time, and it can be difficult to keep up.

The consequences of having false beliefs in food safety inspection may range from minor regulatory headaches to major recalls that impact your company’s reputation and bottom line. In the interest of debunking food inspection misconceptions, we have compiled a list of seven common food inspection myths.

Myth #1: Standard Inspection Systems Can Be Used for All Products

Because standard inspection systems are a good line of defense for many products, this is one of the most common misunderstandings about food safety checks. In reality, each food product, production line, and industry comes with unique specifications and challenges. The more customized your inspection system, the better your chances are of detecting unwanted contaminants and ensuring food safety regulatory compliance.

For example, the dairy industry often produces large 40-pound blocks of cheese. Since x-ray systems can’t always successfully scan these blocks, many cheese manufacturers rely on standard metal detectors. Specialized cheese block x-ray inspection systems, however, can detect pieces of metal more than four times smaller than standard metal detectors, as well as bits of glass, stone, ceramic, and hard plastics.

Myth #2: Only Visible Contaminants Are Detected

Because physical objects are the easiest to see, one of the common misconceptions in food inspection is that only visible contaminants are detected. In reality, contaminants can fall into one of the following four categories.

  • Physical contamination: Rocks, wood, insects, and wire can come from the fields where raw materials originate. Pieces of metal or chipped plastic can come from production equipment on the line. Hair, jewelry, and fingernails can come from workers on the factory floor.
  • Biological contamination: Bacteria (like E. coli), viruses (like norovirus), yeasts, molds, and parasites can contaminate food products at various stages of production.
  • Chemical contamination: Cleaning products, pesticides, and herbicides can also make their way into the food from leftover agricultural residues, improper labeling of chemicals, or poor manufacturing controls.
  • Allergenic contamination: Allergens can contaminate food products through cross-contamination during harvest, production, packaging, storage, or transportation.

Even physical contaminants are not always easy to see with the naked eye. X-ray systems can help you detect small amounts of metallic and non-metallic contaminants down to 0.3mm, about the size of a grain of salt. In addition, x-rays can help you identify other product flaws like cross-contamination or broken seals, which could lead to the introduction of pathogens or other issues.

Another type of inspection technology that can help you detect dirt, hair, and other unacceptable contamination issues is machine vision. These systems can also identify flaws in the product packaging — such as stains, holes, dents, and tears — that could indicate or result in other, less visible types of contamination.

Myth #3: Manual Inspection Is as Good as Automated Inspection

senior inspector at food factory processing section

While “the human touch” is a desired aspect of many business services, food inspection is not among them. Humans make mistakes all the time, whether due to fatigue, distraction, or working too quickly. By reducing the risk of human error, automated inspection systems are significantly more reliable than manual systems.

More and more, safety guidelines are mandating that businesses install automatic inspection and rejection systems on food production lines. Alternatively, they may require installing a belt-stop system to halt conveyors when contamination is detected so that you can remove defective products or foreign objects.

Furthermore, the capabilities of food safety inspection technology improve every day. Modern systems involve machine vision with high-accuracy cameras that can detect much more than the human eye. Artificial intelligence holds promise for the rapid detection and identification of food-borne bacteria.

Myth #4: Food Safety Isn’t Getting Any Better

When you hear about major food recalls on the news — whether due to the identification of pathogens, the contamination of ingredients, or the mislabeling of packaging — you may worry that food safety is getting worse. In fact, a recall means that a food manufacturer has identified a potential problem and is doing their part to keep consumers safe.

It is true that as food becomes more processed, the risk of contamination increases at each step of the way. However, the idea that there are no safety improvements in food processing is a common misconception about food inspection.

With more advanced technology, more sensitive equipment, and improved inspection processes, the food industry is better able to detect foreign contaminants before they harm consumers. Cutting-edge technologies like electrochemical biosensors are emerging as potential tools in the food industry to sense contaminants, allergens, toxins, and pathogens.

Myth #5: Food Inspection Violations Mean the Food Is Unsafe to Consume

food in damaged vacuum sealed packaging

Food inspection violations can mean any number of things. In some cases, they do identify food that is unsafe for the consumer. In many cases, however, the inspection process uncovers violations that could potentially lead to unsafe food, which is why food safety inspection systems are so important.

For example, if an inspection reveals that the packaging is damaged, a worker wasn’t wearing gloves, or a machine was malfunctioning, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the food is unsafe. Many manufacturers destroy, reinspect, repackage, or even recall a product simply out of an abundance of caution.

In other cases, the food may be safe for some individuals but dangerous for others. For example, in instances of cross-contamination of a peanut-free product and a product with peanuts, the contaminated food is not unsafe for most consumers. However, if a person with a peanut allergy believes they are eating peanut-free food, the consequences can be deadly.

The same is true of products that are mislabeled. The food is not necessarily contaminated or dangerous, but without proper labeling, consumers will not know what ingredients they are eating. That in itself could prove hazardous for people with allergies or other medical conditions.

Myth #6: One Critical Point at the End of the Production Line Is Sufficient

Critical control points (CCPs) remove, prevent, or reduce potential hazards in the food processing line to an acceptable level. For simple processes and short production lines, a single CCP at the end stage may control for multiple hazards. However, in more high-risk processes or regulated industries, you may need to implement multiple critical control points to manage a single hazard.

Food safety plans use CCPs to control for physical, chemical, and biological hazards. Examples of CCPs at multiple stages of the food processing line include the following:

  • Preinspecting raw materials before use
  • Heating foods to a specific temperature
  • Storing foods at a specific temperature
  • Adding preservatives or acidulants
  • Using the proper packaging type
  • Inspecting packaging for flaws such as punctures, unsecured lids, or rodent bites

One of the most important benefits of having multiple CCPs is that they enable you to pinpoint contaminations, trace them to their source, and have a better chance of rectifying the situation before the entire product run is compromised. This is one example of how clarifying misconceptions about food inspection protects both the end consumer and your bottom line.

Myth #7: Small Food Businesses Are Exempt From Inspection

In some cases, small businesses are subject to different food manufacturing rules. For example, if you meet the USDA’s definition of a small business (less than 500 employees and processing less than 100,000 pounds of meat per formula per year), then you do not have to follow Nutrition Facts labeling requirements.

In addition, if you sell meat or poultry products only inside your state lines, USDA inspectors may not visit your facility. This does not mean, however, that you are exempt from inspection. Instead, you will qualify for a small food manufacturer program in which state inspectors will inspect your plant.

Finally, no manufacturer in any sector is exempt from producing safe food. Regardless of their size and status, all facilities are legally prohibited from selling adulterated food. This includes food prepared or packed under unsanitary conditions that may become contaminated or otherwise unsafe to consume.

If you believed a common misconception about food inspection prior to reading this article, we hope this post has helped clear it up — and highlighted the consequences of inadequate food inspection. To help keep your food products free from hazards, TDI Packsys offers a variety of advanced inspection systems, including metal detectors, machine vision systems, and x-ray technology.

For more information about choosing the right food inspection systems for your application, contact us today!

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