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New Tools in the Fight for Food Safety
As industry gears up to adhere to FSMA, manufacturers offer more equipment to meet compliance demands
In April, in direct response to FSMA requirements, the FDA launched an easier-to-use version of its food recall search engine. Under the new law, the FDA was required to create a more consumer-friendly version of the food recall search site within 90 days. The new version provides recall information organized by date and presented in table format going back to 2009, and includes product brand name, product description, reason for the recall, and the recalling firm, as well as whether the recall is ongoing or completed.
Yet, despite such actions, 73% of Americans are more concerned now about the safety of the food they eat than they were five years ago, according to Deloitte’s 2011 Consumer Food and Products Insight Survey, conducted in March. With several high-profile food recalls hitting the headlines in recent years, safety concerns have skyrocketed: A year ago, a little more than one-third (36%) of respondents called the safety of foods and food ingredients a “top concern,” but in this year’s survey, that percentage jumped to nearly half (49%).
Food industry suppliers, including packaging materials and machinery manufacturers, are addressing these concerns with a variety of new products.
Cognex Corporation of Natick, Mass., is addressing the food safety initiative through a full line of machine vision systems and image-based ID readers.
Cognex OmniView is a multi-camera system that provides, in color or monochrome, fast, accurate inspection and traceability of cylindrical products such as cans, bottles, jars, tubs, and vials. The OmniView vision technology does not require turning the label toward the camera; products can be in any orientation as they pass through the OmniView station. The system’s four or five cameras will acquire the image without having to slow the line.
The system helps minimize product recalls caused by mismatched labels and lids or bad seals, and aids in tracing the product through the supply chain by ensuring the accuracy of labels and ID codes. OmniView ensures product quality, helps control the process by identifying defects early, tracks parts through the supply chain by reading labels and codes, and streamlines labor by eliminating the need for manual inspection.
“Printed label accuracy is a great application for machine vision,” said John Lewis, market development manager. “Our OmniView technology is particularly well suited for inspecting labels on cylindrical containers with random 360-degree orientation that are moving at high line speeds of up to 1200 parts per minute.
“One application is detecting torn or stained labels on high-end products such as fine wines,” Lewis explained. “Another application is bright-stock labeling of soup. After soup cans are filled, they are often stored without labels because labels can be damaged from handling in the warehouse. The cans are not labeled until an order comes in, for example, for a pallet of clam chowder with a particular store brand label. When the cans are pulled for labeling, a five-camera OmniView system verifies a character string printed on the cans. The string identifies each can’s contents to match it with the correct label.
Track-and-trace is also essential for protecting the U.S. food distribution chain, and DataMan bar code readers from Cognex address this function, said Lewis.
“The Bioterrorism Act requires that any part of the food chain be able to trace back their source ‘one step,’ and trace forward the food destination ‘one step’ on all food within 24 hours,” he said.
Lewis explained that DataMan ID readers read bar codes to help food processors and packagers meet these requirements and implement traceability for product safety and quality control.
“This not only helps first isolate the source and extent of safety or quality control problems, but also minimizes production and distribution of unsafe or poor-quality products, reducing the potential for bad publicity, liability, and recalls,” he said. “The better and more precise the tracing system, the faster a producer can identify and resolve product safety or quality problems.”
Using DataMan ID readers, a manufacturer may uniquely code each lot or batch to identify time and location of production and make recalls more efficient and less costly. This can benefit manufacturers that operate in an intensely competitive retail structure with narrow profit margins, such as the food industry, where reducing these costs can be the difference between profit and loss.
The DataMan QL features 1DMax, the new standard for 1D bar code reading, with outstanding performance on difficult-to-read codes. The system supports linear and stacked bar codes and includes an easy-to-use setup tool. Upgradeable software is available to enable 2D code reading.
DataMan 100 readers feature a super high-density lens option. DataMan 200 readers have an optional variable focus and liquid lens technology. Autofocus is achieved with a single software command; there is no need to manually adjust the focus on the line.
Another product from Cognex, In-Sight vision systems, helps to reduce scrap and re-work, which ultimately saves time and money by inspecting products throughout the manufacturing process. The systems are widely used with material-handling equipment and robots for alignment and pick-and-place guidance during assembly and inspection. The In-Sight can identify parts using bar codes, with alphanumeric characters, or by shape and color.
The systems are available with standard resolution, high resolution, ID readers, or ExtractColor software. Standard with the 5000 Series are industrial-grade features and performance, and the system can be used for single-point inspection tasks or for building an entire factory-wide network of vision systems.
Lewis explained the significance of these products to food safety: “Packaged foods are required to list common food allergens, such as milk, eggs, and peanuts, that are in the product or may have come in contact with the product. Foods such as produce, meats, and fish also must be labeled with the country of origin.
“Just like DataMan ID readers, Cognex In-Sight vision systems can read bar codes,” Lewis said.
“However, they can also be quickly trained to identify label graphics, recognize letters and numbers, and perform other inspections to eliminate mislabeling, which is a predominant cause of FDA recalls today. Before a label is applied or a package filled, suppliers of labels and direct-print food-contact materials such as cartonboard and plastic films can set up inspections to eliminate label and package printing errors at the source. Then packagers can inspect after labeling or filling to detect packaging mix-ups that may result in missing allergen declarations and inaccurate ingredient listings.
“In addition to aiding with package integrity and supply chain security, vision systems can also be implemented on the processing side to reduce scrap [and] improve productivity and quality control, as well as enhance brand image. For example, vision systems can sort food by color or shape, detect defects, verify proper placement of food in multi-compartment packaging, detect fill levels, count, and provide guidance for robotic pick and place or palletizing operations to achieve improved manufacturing and packaging flexibility,” commented Lewis.
MOCON Inc. of Minneapolis, Minn., has developed two new systems for food applications.
One of the standard screening techniques for assessing microbial safety in food is the aerobic plate count, also known as total viable count or total plate count. Traditional APC testing is performed on agar or film plates that provide nutrients for the bacterial sample, explained Alan Taylor, business manager for food safety.
MOCON’s new technology, GreenLight, yields precise, quantifiable results in a much shorter time than prior methods. The GreenLight 910, uses a sensor probe to detect oxygen depletion caused by aerobic bacteria. The unit has been designed to be cost effective and easy to use. Targeted at food processing companies with low-to-medium throughput requirements, the GreenLight 910 unit significantly reduces the testing time and labor needed to determine aerobic bacterial counts in meat, poultry, seafood, dairy, and produce. Processors and packers get same-day, precise results in a cost-effective manner.
The unit provides an APC of a food sample’s microbial load by using a sensing assay or vial. As bacteria in the test sample multiply and respire, they consume oxygen. The change in oxygen is used to calculate the original sample’s colony-forming units per gram for solids or per milliliter for liquids.
MOCON also recently introduced the MultiCheck 400 Package Integrity Test System, which includes the first automated testing capability for one-way degassing valves, according to Anthony Ahmed, product manager. These valves are used most frequently on laminated bags for roasted coffee beans. The beans emit carbon dioxide, which, if not vented, will eventually rupture the package. The valves allow pressure to be released from an air-tight package while preventing air from getting back in. Air, particularly oxygen, has a negative effect on food shelf life, allowing aerobic bacteria to breed. One-way valves can also be found on flexible packages for pet food and other applications.
MOCON’s Valve Test Unit enables food producers to test both the burst point of the one-way valve and whether it leaks. The information is critical to ensuring that the valve will release at the designed pressure point and that O2 is not entering the package through the valve.
Many food safety initiatives focus on what is or could be introduced to the production line by inspecting incoming ingredients, restricting access to facilities, and screening employees. However, it is equally important to ensure the safety of food after a product leaves the plant.
Without some type of tamper-evident method, a product can easily be compromised, either in transit or while sitting on the store shelf. Food packagers who want to employ additional safety methods in their packaging need look no further than the recent past and developments in over-the-counter pharmaceuticals.
Faced with FDA mandates to improve package tamper evidence, OTC pharmaceutical manufacturers quickly adopted induction cap sealing. In the past 30 years, induction cap sealing has become a go-to technology for this industry.
“Induction has succeeded because it scores well on the factory floor as well as on the store shelf,” explained Mark Plantier, vice president of marketing at Enercon Industries Corp. in Menomonee Falls, Wis. “Induction cap sealers are relatively inexpensive packaging systems, and they are easy to install over existing conveyors and have a very compact footprint. As a non-contact process, their implementation into a packaging line is quite unobtrusive.”
Systems can be designed to handle a wide range of cap/liner/container configurations for liquids, oils, and solids packaged in both plastics and glass.
Product protection is created when the induction cap sealer bonds the liner to the container lip. During the process, the sealing head transforms the electrical energy into a magnetic field to which the foil liner is exposed. The resistance of the foil in the liner interacts with the electrical energy, heating the foil, which then melts the polymer layer on the liner. The cooled polymer adheres to both the liner and the lip of the container to create the seal.
“Once installed, the benefits go well beyond tamper evidence,” Plantier said. “The seal creates a hermetic barrier that also protects the product from oxygen and moisture.”
Advances in equipment design are enabling induction sealers to be integrated with complex packaging lines. Systems such as the new Super Seal Touch feature full network connectivity and an on-board touch screen that allows for recipe management, operator lockout, and detailed fault and diagnostics information. In addition, free laboratory testing is available to help packagers ensure the best material and equipment solution for their application.
The Super Seal Jr. offers a combination of sealing capability, portability, and production flexibility with a very small footprint. It seals everything from the smallest closures to 120 mm wide-mouth containers. The unit’s compact design and high performance is a direct result of electronic architecture that features a proprietary switching device technique. The system is ideal for laboratory applications, manual production, off-line testing, and start-up operations with aspirations of increased productivity. An operator-friendly display, digital sealing timer, and missing foil indicator, as well as an electronic batch and foil counter, are included.
Herrmann Ultrasonics of Bartlett, Ill., provides equipment to various industries for the automated sealing of packages. The package types and corresponding equipment include stand-up pouches; vertical form/fill/seal; horizontal form/fill/seal; rigid containers, such as preformed trays, bowls, and cups; and cartons, such as gable-tops, spouts, fitments, and drink boxes.
According to Steve Bellavia, product manager–packaging, ultrasonic package sealing offers some distinct advantages compared with traditional heat sealing systems, such as the ability to hermetically seal through product contamination in the seal area and eliminate hot-tack issues or shrinkage. Other advantages include fast seal times with superior seal quality, reduced maintenance issues (with no tape required, the film does not stick to sealing tools) and applicability for peelable seals.
Ultrasonics uses vibrational energy. There is no rise in temperature of the product or the tools, thus removing the chance of any burn hazard.
Ultransonics also supports sustainability initiatives. The seals are very narrow but do not compromise seal integrity. Due to narrow seals, the potential to reduce overall package size exists. Plus, overall power consumption compared to a heat system is reduced by 80 percent.
“Herrmann Ultrasonics equipment is used in automated packaging machines where benefits such as the ability to seal through contamination, instant machine startup, seal validation, and decreased sealing times are required,” Bellavia said. “The equipment provides for a 100 percent ultrasonic vf/f/s system sealing solution, including the latest achievement of a vertical overlap back seal created exclusively with ultrasonics. This total ultrasonic solution greatly improves the overall manufacturing efficiency by reducing energy consumption, reduces leaker rates by sealing through product in the seal area, eliminates typical hot tack issues, and allows for the use of lower cost, less complex film structures.”
PMMI is a trade association with more than 560 member companies that manufacture packaging, processing and related converting machinery, commercially available packaging machinery components, containers, and materials in the United States and Canada. PMMI’s vision is to be the leading global resource for packaging, and its mission is to improve and promote members' abilities to meet the needs of their customers. Learn more about PMMI and the PACK EXPO trade shows at PMMI.org and Packexpo.com.