What Qualifies as a Physical Contaminant?


Food contamination comes in many forms; it can be biological contamination, chemical contamination or physical contamination. Each type of hazard comes with risk to the end user and all of them can create costly problems for the manufacturer.

Biological contamination is the presence of microbes, such as salmonella and listeria, while chemical contamination refers to substances in our food like antibiotics, cleaning agents and pesticides.

Physical contamination takes place when a foreign object accidentally gets into food products, or when natural objects are left in food. Food can become contaminated at many different points during the production and manufacturing process, or even through substandard practices in the food chain before it reaches a production facility.

Being able to identify and eliminate physical contaminants is essential in keeping end users of your food product safe — and in keeping your business out of trouble.

What Qualifies as a Physical Contaminant?

According to the FDA, physical contaminants come in two categories: hard/sharp physical hazards and choking hazards. Both of these are dangerous if left undetected, because they can cause injuries such as laceration of the throat, mouth and intestines. They can lead to dental damage or choking, and in some cases can even result in death.

Some of the more common examples of physical contaminants include glass, metal, rubber, bone, wood, stone and plastic. Here’s a closer look at how some of those contaminants find their way into food products.

Outside Sources of Physical Contamination

Metal: Metal can end up in food products during both the farming process and through different stages of food processing. If a metal blade snaps during the cutting or harvesting of plants, fragments of metal from that blade could be unknowingly passed along in the food. During processing, a machine may lose a nut or a bolt that falls into the food, or a broken piece of equipment may produce metal fragments and shavings that land in the food.

Glass: Whenever the production process includes the use of glass containers, there’s a risk that some glass will end up in the product. Mechanized handling of the glass can increase the chances of breakage, but glass contamination can happen through any type of packaging method. In some cases, glass fragments can even get into the food as a result of overhead lights breaking in a production facility.

Plastic: When facilities use hard plastic tools and equipment (paddles, buckets, sieves, etc.), the plastic can wear down over time. This leads to cracks and breakage, and, if not detected, the plastic can end up in the food product. In 2018, plastic topped the list of foreign contaminants found in food. 


Rubber: Contamination of food through rubber products increased 22% from 2015 to 2016, which underscores just how important it is to monitor food products. Rubber is a commonly used material in manufacturing, providing seals and O-rings to prevent leakage into the food. However, when they wear out, they can break into fragments and fall into the food product.   

Wood: Wood fragments can be found in all types of food products; they are commonly the result either of wood pallets used for transporting the food or from wooden utensils and equipment used in the manufacturing process.

Stone: Stones and rocks are typically a natural contaminant that occurs early in the food chain. While the stones and rocks themselves are not toxic, like many other physical contaminants, they can be choking hazards or cause internal injury if swallowed.  

Bone: Many meat products are contaminated by bone; any food producer that works with meat products runs the risk of bones in the food. One solution many producers turn to is to use deboned meat as the raw ingredient. They may also use a specialize bone removal system during grinding operations.

The challenge in dealing with food contamination often lies in detection. Physical inspection won’t help you locate foreign materials embedded in the food product, which is why X-ray inspections have become increasingly more popular among food producers.


Eliminating Physical Contamination in Your Food Products

According to the FDA, many physical food contaminants can be prevented by changing processes within a facility. However, even the most stringent processes will sometimes go awry.

Machines will break down, gaskets will wear out, utensils will break, jars will shatter.  No matter how many processes and safeguards are in place, there’s no guarantee that they will work with 100% effectiveness every time.

With leading technology that can detect fragments of metal, bone, plastic, gasket, glass and more — even if those contaminants are as small as 0.8 mm (or in some cases, even smaller) — FlexXray has become the company that food producers trust to ensure that their product is free from debris and physical contamination.

Serving food producers from small, local companies to major international providers, we have the food X-ray inspection solutions you’re looking for to provide you with peace of mind — and to ensure you’re not sidelined by costly food recalls or lawsuits related to physical contamination.


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