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May 14, 2020

X-ray Technology in Food Manufacturing

- By Pauline Brown

There’s plastic in my coleslaw!

Dual energy photon counting X-ray technology is helping food manufacturers eliminate contaminants.

Today’s supply chains are increasingly global and complex and the food industry is well aware of the risks of contamination at every point in the process. Bacterial contaminants, such as Salmonella, have had their fair share of media coverage, but there is growing concern about contamination from foreign materials.

High-quality inspections need to be conducted while maintaining in-line processing speeds. Speed cannot compromise resolution and sensitivity. The need to discriminate complex densities of different materials is in increasing demand.

We developed X-ray detection sensors to meet the specific demands of the food industry, supporting the need to maintain productivity in in-line food manufacturing where conveyor belt systems can be processing thousands of pounds of product an hour.

The TDIX250 and TDIX400 detectors offer technology that is based on directly converting the X-ray signal, and counting photons. Through TDS (time delay summation – a system for adding multi stage sensors to form an output image), these detectors are able to work at conveyor belt speeds of up to 6m per second.

Maintaining resolution and sensitivity at these speeds is industry-leading technology. What’s more, it’s affordable.

A further priority has been to respond to problems in spotting small, difficult-to-find contaminants which challenge most imaging systems. Examples are bone fragments, pieces of plastic, and shards of glass in materials with complex densities. Pieces of PVC have been found in boxes of granola (a highly complex mix of materials) and shards of glass from pickers’ bracelets in the paddy fields have been identified in quantities of rice. Tiny pieces of materials from the tools used in the manufacturing processes (often made of plastic, metal or rubber) can enter the food chain. Discovering these sources of contamination is vital but difficult and most inspection systems have problems in loss of sensitivity and resolution when a conveyor belt is working at increasing speed.

To answer this harder challenge, we developed the TDI250 and TDI400 detectors which incorporate dual energy mode technology to aid in the discrimination of different materials whilst able to operate at conveyor belt speeds of up to 1m per second at 100 micro-meter resolution. By delivering accurate material discrimination information at high resolution, small, hard to detect contaminates become detectable. These dual energy detectors can also deliver further benefits in analysis – for example, fat content in meat.

The challenges for the food industry are not going away. Compliance with increasingly stringent global regulations, such as the 2019 US requirement to comply to new FSIS (USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service) guidelines on the contamination of meat and poultry with plastics, metal and other foreign body materials, is only likely to intensify.

As the food chain becomes more global and more complex, risks are increasing and the regulations are becoming more demanding. Talking to our experts will help you de-risk and prepare for a safer future.

A recent quick analysis on a single day in the UK alone revealed 386 food recall alerts, with several cases, from well-established companies, of product lines recalled due to suspicion of contamination with shards of glass, plastic or pieces of metal. Costs of recalls such as these are a serious matter. The logistics and the loss of the product can be significant, but it’s the waste of production time, loss of sales, and reputational damage that add to the pain. The Mars chocolate recall in 2016 is a well-known example and illustrates the point.

When Mars voluntarily recalled batches of chocolate after a single shard of plastic was found, a recall which ultimately impacted 55 countries, the cost to the company was reported to be in the tens of millions of dollars.

We are committed to continuing to work with our customers and partners in this industry, and will continuously improve our state-of-the-art products. As part of Varex Imaging, we offer stable and growing opportunities for on-going partnerships.

Our value-add is in sharing our long-term industry knowledge with you. Our testing facility at our Application Innovation Centre in Munich has been established to enable the industry to discuss specific needs, to run tests and to see live demonstrations.

Get in touch – our team of highly experienced and technical people are here to help.

The Direct Conversion Food Inspection Industry Team