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Foreign Material Prevention using FMEA and Food Safety Culture

By Bill Potter   |   

Foreign material prevention is among the most talked-about topics these days in the food safety world. After years of industry focus on this topic, prevention and mitigation of foreign material seems to be emphasized more now than ever.

The Past: Easier to Find

Certainly, while any foreign material has always been a serious issue, previous generations had much less widespread scrutiny when a foreign material incident occurred. Typically, consumers that reported a foreign material finding were interested in private remuneration or simply corrective actions by the producer or food service entity. Also, in past generations many food products were purchased in more basic forms, such as whole poultry carcasses, pork chops, or basic wheat flour. Inadvertent foreign objects could be more easily identified and removed when preparing food for the family.

The Current State: More Pre-processing, More Risk

As our society has become more hurried and busier, there is an increasing demand for foods to be pre-processed to speed up preparation and meet the demands of an eat-on-the-go population. This has put much of the responsibility for meal preparation back to the manufacturer. Therefore, manufacturers have installed more machines, increased process steps, procured more ingredients, hired more employees, etc. … and thus have more foreign material risks. Further, with the increases in recalls, regulatory requirements, and scrutiny of incidents by the media, today’s managers responsible for food safety, production, and engineering are taking a deeper look into foreign material risks and mitigation strategies.

The Future: Heightened Exposure

With the growing interest in basic foods that are considered “natural,” “unprocessed,” or similar, will foreign material risks be reduced? Probably not. While these markets are growing, current demand for further-processed items remains strong. Furthermore, in this current age of transparency and social media, foreign material prevention will be paramount. Even one consumer injured when eating food, or one foreign material picture placed on social media can have a huge impact on a company’s reputation.

A Comprehensive Approach to Mitigating Risk

The traditional foreign material prevention strategies of the past still have an important place in today’s food production. For example, strict raw material monitoring and supplier accountability will always be an important food safety concept, and trending supplier performance typically leads to risk reduction. Focusing on equipment preventive and predictive maintenance has traditionally been another way to prevent foreign material, in addition to installing of foreign material removal devices such as magnets, x-rays, and metal detectors.

These activities can be combined with modern approaches, such as comprehensive Food Safety Culture assessments to understand the degree of alignment between management and employees in foreign material prevention. Also, deeper assessments of foreign material risks can be achieved by a multi-disciplinary team that determines the foreign material risk priority number (RPN), of each process by using the Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA). In this approach, an RPN can be identified by multiplying the Probability (P) x Severity (S) x Detectability (D) of foreign material for each process step.


Final Thoughts

In a perfect world, every ounce of food would be free of foreign material and satisfy every consumer’s quality expectations. But in the real world, potential risks can exist. While risks are inherent in our society, such as when driving a car, flying in a plane, or having a surgical procedure, foreign material risks in food are being significantly reduced with many proactive efforts.

Food producers that engage all functional areas to aggressively identify and address foreign material risks can greatly improve the sustainability of their operations. Granted, this can require an extensive amount of time, and involves much more than just studying equipment and process flows. While these are important activities, understanding foreign material risks involves understanding all the details, e.g., the foreign material probabilities, root causes, severity of hazards, detectability of hazards, machine failure predictability, equipment design features, supplier performance, and employee practices for mitigation — just to name a few.

The FMEA process is a great tool to help understand these details. FMEA teams commonly learn new information during their risk assessments that is highly valuable in foreign material prevention strategies. In addition, companies can utilize periodic Food Safety Culture assessments to measure alignment with best practices to prevent foreign material.

What are some methods you’re using to prevent foreign material contamination? Or, what questions do you have on how to enhance your risk mitigation strategies? Please leave a comment below.

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