Why Does the Food Industry Use X-Rays? A Quick Guide

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different types of packaged food

Most people associate X-rays with hospitals, doctors, and dentists. While healthcare is a common application for X-ray technology, it’s not the only one. X-rays are a critical component of daily operation and production in the food processing and packaging industry. So, why does the food industry use X-rays? To answer that question, TDI Packsys shares information below about how X-rays fit into the food supply chain.

Why Does the Food Industry Use X-Rays?

During food processing, packaging, and manufacturing, businesses use X-ray inspection systems to maintain strict quality control standards. These machines scan the internal structure of food products to check for foreign objects or other non-food items, such as plastic, metal, etc.

Contamination can occur from human error, wear and tear of machinery, or even through intentional means. X-rays detect the vast majority of problems, allowing businesses to remove the tainted food before it reaches retail shelves.

The Roles of X-Ray Technology in Ensuring Food Safety and Quality

inspector filling out quality control form in laboratory

Food Safety and Quality Assurance

Food manufacturers and processors must comply with federal, state, and local regulations concerning food safety management and quality assurance. Examples include:

  • Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP)
  • Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)
  • Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI)

X-ray systems also play a role in consumer protection and safeguard companies against costly recalls, potential lawsuits, and damage to their reputations.

Examples of Food Safety and Quality Issues Detected by X-Ray Inspection

X-ray inspection is essential for companies to maintain proper quality assurance and food safety. Generally speaking, there are six ways this technology works. It can:

  • Identify physical defects in food items
  • Count internal components
  • Measure product mass
  • Find broken or missing products
  • Inspect the integrity of packaging seals
  • Verify proper fill levels

The accidental inclusion of foreign matter in food occurs more frequently than you might think. For instance, in April 2023, there was a recall of 2,000 lbs of raw ground beef for possibly containing pieces of white neoprene. In August of 2022, there was a public health alert for Perdue frozen chicken breast tenders that possibly contained blue dye and pieces of clear plastic.

X-ray systems can also perform quality assurance. For example, they can view the inside of a pastry to check that it has the proper amount of filling. Too much filling means the company is wasting money. Not enough filling, and customers complain. As you can see, it’s essential to the entire process of manufacturing and packaging food.

How Do X-Ray Food Inspection Systems Detect Foreign Materials in Food?

The same X-ray technology healthcare professionals use to check for broken bones applies to food inspection. Basically, X-rays consist of very short wavelengths of electromagnetic energy that are invisible to the naked eye.

As the machine transmits these wavelengths through solid food products, the high energy of the wavelengths begins to decrease. Dense areas, like pieces of metal, make the energy drop even further.

Once the energy passes through the food completely, an internal sensor converts the wavelength energy patterns into a grayscale radiograph image. Areas with high densities will appear very dark on the image, making it easier to pinpoint the type and location of any contaminants.

Types of Foreign Materials That Can Contaminate Food

small bottle with stones and pebbles

Foreign objects may find their way into food items at any food processing stage, often from faulty or broken machinery or human error. The most common matter is metal, but there are many more contaminants X-ray inspectors can find, including the following:

  • Metal
  • Hard and soft plastic
  • Broken glass
  • Bone fragments
  • Stones or pebbles
  • Rubber (seals or gaskets)

Comparison of X-Rays to Other Inspection Methods

X-ray inspection technology is an indispensable and commonplace quality control method during critical control points in food processing. But how does it compare to other inspection methods, like food metal detectors? Let’s find out.

Capabilities/Features X-Ray Food Inspectors Food Metal Detectors
What can it detect? Glass, metals, plastic, wood, stone, rubber, bone Metal only (ferrous and non-ferrous)
Technology Uses electromagnetic wavelengths to compare product density and detect physical contaminants Identifies changes or disturbances in an electromagnetic field to detect metal contaminants
Additional capabilities Can measure product mass, find broken/missing pieces, and verify seal integrity Most detectors can only identify unwanted metal objects in food products
Cost Higher cost and upkeep Generally more affordable
Lifespan 5 to 10 years 10 to 20 years
Metal/Metalized packaging? Can identify objects inside metal containers or packaging Some models can detect metal inside certain metalized film packaging

What Are the Benefits of Using X-Ray Inspection in the Food Industry?

magnifying glass with positive and negative sign

Proper food safety management and strict compliance with quality control regulations are two fundamental benefits of investing in X-ray inspection technology. This technology is commonplace in the food industry because it provides numerous advantages for businesses in food processing and production.

X-ray food inspection systems can:

  • Detect a wide range of physical contaminants (metal, glass, stone, plastic, rubber, etc.)
  • Protect consumers from the potential harms of contaminated food
  • Provide a highly sophisticated, efficient, accurate, and reliable inspection method
  • Help businesses maintain the highest quality assurance and safety standards
  • Prevent costly scenarios like food recalls, wasted product, liability suits, supply chain disruption, and lost sales
  • Increase the level of accountability and traceability with physical contaminants
  • Provide a high return on investment for food production companies

Are There Any Risks Associated With Using X-Ray Inspection in the Food Industry?

Many people falsely believe that using X-ray inspection systems in the food processing industry isn’t safe because of exposure to radiation. However, that’s not the case. Everyone is subject to background radiation every day. Extensive research and studies have shown that X-ray inspection doesn’t irradiate or harm food at all. Plus, these systems include failsafe devices and built-in sensors that prevent workers from harmful radiation exposure.

Food Safety Regulations Requiring the Use of X-Ray Inspection

The food processing industry must follow specific regulations from the HACCP and GFSI, including:

  • Safe Quality Food (SQF) 2000 Code
  • The British Retail Consortium Global Standards
  • The Foundation for Food Safety Certification
  • International Food Standard
  • Standard for Food Safety

While no laws require X-ray inspections, businesses need effective systems in place to detect potential contamination, and X-ray inspection is the ideal solution. The well-known retailer Costco requires all its food suppliers to use X-ray inspection technology to ensure quality control for finished products.

What Are the Limitations of X-Ray Inspection in the Food Industry?

No inspection system is infallible. X-ray technology, while reliable and effective, has certain limitations. Many systems can’t identify the following materials during the inspection of food:

  • Hair
  • Wood
  • Cardboard
  • Low-density plastics
  • Low-density stone
  • Paper
  • String
  • Cartilage
  • Insects

In addition, the relatively high cost of X-ray inspectors is a disadvantage for many businesses, including the initial cost of purchase and long-term costs of operation, like a high-voltage power source.

The Final Word: Why Does the Food Industry Use X-Ray Inspection Systems?

Despite some limitations, X-ray technology is an integral and critical aspect of quality control and safety management in the food industry. At TDI Packsys, we’re proud to be a trusted and reputable supplier of food inspection solutions, including X-ray systems. Call us at 877-834-6750 to learn more about our state-of-the-art X-ray food inspection systems.

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