How to Detect and Manage the Challenge of Plastic in Food


There’s no question that innovations in plastic are changing the food industry. Plastic is paving the way for new, lightweight forms of packaging to be created, as well as providing more flexible choices in equipment. Plastic products make processing and packaging foods easier and more cost-effective.

However, plastic contamination is also creating growing challenges for food manufacturers. How can companies detect and manage the growing challenge of plastic in food?

The Growing Challenge of Plastic in Food 

Today, plastic and rubber are two of the most common items found in a food plant. From gaskets and O-rings to tools, guides, scrapers, cleaning utensils and machine parts, plastic and rubber are essential parts of the food manufacturing process.

As much as plastic contributes to the industry, it’s also created a new set of problems for manufacturers. During 2016, food recalls due to contamination by plastic or rubber more than doubled in North America and Europe. And in 2018, plastic was the number one cause of foreign material contamination in the U.S. 


In the U.S., the most common sources of recalls from plastic contamination are chicken and bakery products. Together, they account for more than 60% of U.S. food recalls due to plastic contamination.

Earlier this year, an Ohio-based food company recalled nearly 120,000 pounds of frozen beef patty products after it was found that their product was possibly contaminated with thin, blue pieces of plastic.

With each recall, companies lose millions of dollars, both directly through hard costs and indirectly through lost sales and/or loss of brand confidence.

For today’s food manufacturer, plastic can be both a cost- and time-saving blessing and a contamination curse. Learning how to manage the risks of plastic is the safest way for food manufacturers to navigate the future.

How to Detect and Prevent Plastic in Food

One of the biggest challenges with plastic is that, once it contaminates a food product, it’s difficult to find. In fact, of all the foreign materials that enter food, plastic is the most difficult to detect.

Food plants that use inline metal detectors won’t detect plastic unless it has been infused with metal to create a metal-detectable plastic. And, because of its low relative density, inline X-ray systems have difficulty finding plastic contaminants.

But that doesn’t mean plastic contamination can’t be detected before subjecting manufacturers to a costly recall (or worse). When different departments within a company work together, they can ensure the effective handling of plastic during the manufacturing process and can put necessary checks and balances in place to minimize the risk of contamination.

Let’s look at three ways food plants can detect and reduce the risks associated with the use of plastic.

1. Choosing High-Density Plastics

Opting for high-density plastics improves detectability when contamination occurs. While more expensive, higher density plastics carry some long-term benefits for food manufacturers.

Most manufacturers use low-density polyethylene plastics because they’re a low-cost solution and they’re effective in high-pressure operations (and for CIP-able processes). However, the perceived benefits of these plastics have a downside: because they have a lower density than water, they’re virtually impossible to find when they become a food contaminant. While water has a rating of 1 SpG, or specific gravity, polyethylene plastics have ratings less than 1.

Choosing higher density plastics, even at a slightly higher cost, will greatly improve your ability to detectany plastic contamination that occurs.

2. Auditing Plastic Tools and Materials

Since traceability plays a significant role whenever a contaminant is detected, a thorough audit of plastic tools and materials used during the manufacturing process should be conducted.

The audit allows QA managers and safety supervisors to identify what risks are present in the plant and determine what could be replaced with more detectable alternatives. For example, this could include plastic that contains a detectable additive like metal to make it easier to find through inline metal detection systems, and/or coloring to aid in optical detection by operators on the line or using a camera.

Color-coding detectable plastic can provide an extra layer of traceability and accountability by restricting the use of certain colors to specific areas, so you’ll know exactly where to trace fragments that may end up in your product.

Knowing which tools and equipment put your food product at risk for contamination allows you to create an effective plan for providing greater detectability without compromising the performance of your machines.


3. Use Third-Party X-ray Inspection Services

Although the standard inline X-ray inspection machine will not detect plastic, that doesn’t mean you’re out of options when it comes to foreign material contamination. As a third-party X-ray food inspection service provider, FlexXray specializes in locating physical contaminants, whether they’re plastic, rubber, glass, bone, metal, stones, product “clumps” or something else.

Since we’re completely dedicated to finding contaminants, we’re able to slow down the process; allowing our custom technology to focus in on each and every piece of the product.

This process allows us to identify contaminants quickly, separate out the suspected product, and resolve the situation so your remaining product can continue on through the proper distribution channel.

Prevent Costly Recalls and Lawsuits from Plastic Contamination

As plastics become increasingly more prevalent in the food manufacturing process and supply chain, the risk of plastic contamination increases.

Knowing how to reduce the threats of contamination in your plant, and what steps to take if you suspect contamination has occurred, can prevent you from facing a costly food recall.


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