We’ve all the seen newspaper headlines: “Man finds XXX in his hamburger” or perhaps it’s  “Woman bites into XXX.”
Of course most of these outlandish cases either involve an explainable rare occurrence or a contrived incident (designed to get cash compensation). Regardless, the resulting process often involves a lawsuit and damage to a company’s image as well as its customer reputation.
In any event, foreign object control is a very real concern for food manufacturers and we have a responsibility to eliminate items that don’t belong in the formula.

Although detection equipment provides a safety net, the most effective way to eliminate foreign objects involves total prevention. A holistic approach includes your suppliers, employees and supporting management systems. Here, we’ll briefly look at all three areas.

Suppliers: It’s important to partner with your suppliers. Have you audited or visited them? Where are potential areas for objects to enter their system?

You should examine their systems to learn how they are preventing foreign objects from contaminating their food ingredient or raw material. Tell vendors about any objects you find in shipments to your facility. Develop and introduce an effective tracking system (scorecard) to measure the performance of your suppliers in relation to foreign objects. This would help them improve.

Employees: Employees are one of your plant’s best defenses. Train employees to look for anything not in the recipe. Recognize them for finding any object and thereby preventing a customer complaint. You also should conduct a full investigation of employee findings. Keep employees informed of the items found and actions taken. Set reduction goals and publish them to everyone.

The bottom line is to treat each event as if it were a complaint from your best customer. If you can put measures in place to prevent an internal problem from ever repeating itself, you have avoided a potential complaint. 

System process: A systematic approach such as FMEA (Failure Mode Effect Analysis) can prevent foreign objects.

This involves trained, knowledgeable employees who develop a very detailed process flow and who audit each step for potential foreign object hazards. All potential hazards are listed and ranked based on (1) how likely they are to occur, (2) what the severity would be, and (3) the probability of having this potential event. Then you should prioritize the highest rated items and conduct follow-up auditing to ensure your resolutions are effective.

Another key management approach is a successful preventive maintenance program - or better yet - a “predictive” maintenance program.  The goal is to replace wear part or conduct inspections of equipment before failure.

In addition to these prevention measures, most operations have some foreign object detection systems. Although these are necessary, they are not foolproof. Make it a goal to drive down the number of events from your detection system and react to each event as a failure followed by a complete investigation.
Bryan C. Westerby, Ph.D., is vice president quality and food safety at The Suter Company Inc., a Sycamore, Ill., prepared foods processor. Westerby also is a member of the Refrigerated Foods Association’s technical committee.