Food contamination does more than give a processing plant a suspect reputation. Nothing is exempt from scrutiny and negative consequences for every aspect of the brand, from consumer health to legal liability to reputation and regulatory issues.
Fortunately, most contamination comes in three different forms. As a result, if a business takes proper precautions, the most common forms of food packaging contamination can be avoided or, at least controlled. Make no mistake. Packaging can play an important role in ensuring food safety.
The following are the three most common forms of food packaging contamination.
Physical Food Contamination
Because physical contamination of food packaging can happen at so many points and in so many ways along the supply chain, it is by far the most discovered by consumers. Because consumers usually discover it, physical contamination is also the most well-known by the public.
Physical contamination occurs when something physically penetrates packaging and taints food. Among all the ways physical contamination can happen, a few contaminants stand out:
- Dirt and Debris
Odd contaminants have included:
- Personal effects
While food contamination by anything on the first list usually is written off by consumers and forgotten, or the food or food cost is refunded in some manner, when any of the second is an issue, there is a risk it will receive media coverage. If the contamination is widespread, a recall may occur.
However, the contamination is often isolated and happens between the processor and the retailer at some point.
To avoid physical contamination, food processing factories put into place quality assurance and inspection processes, specialized packaging, and retailer autonomy to pull products if contamination is discovered. If contaminated products leave a factory without being discovered, consumers usually discover there is a problem.
Chemical contamination is usually more serious than physical and less common. There are two forms of chemical contamination:
- Foreign chemicals that are present when they should not be
- Chemical amounts that are higher than what is safe by regulatory standards
In either case, chemical contamination is dangerous and can lead to serious illness or even death. The most infamous chemical contamination of a manufactured product is the Tylenol poisoning in 1982 by potassium cyanide, but chemical contamination most often happens by accident.
Every step in the food production process is susceptible to chemical contamination in one of the two ways mentioned above. Food can be over-processed or exposed to chemicals during processing, packaging, and delivery. Occasionally, food is exposed to chemicals by additives that either should not be used or get used in dangerous volumes.
A few ways food can be exposed include:
- Exposure to pest, weed, and insect control chemicals via punctured packaging
- Exposure to Chemicals used to maintain equipment
- Contamination from secondary sources during transit and storage
- Accidental exposure during the packaging process (exposure to moisture control chemicals, for example)
Any time food is packaged, transported, or stored in proximity to chemicals, there is a potential for contamination, usually through burst packaging.
Manufacturing plants have introduced many quality checks and controls to control the risk of contamination, but as long as packaging can get damaged, the risk of contamination exists.
Biological contamination includes several possibilities and happens when food is exposed to harmful biological agents, specifically parasites, viruses, and bacteria. When this happens, customers can be sickened, require medical treatment or even die in the worst scenario.
It is estimated that over 90% of all food poisoning cases result from food exposed to harmful bacteria, parasites, or viruses. Additional threats come from mold, yeast, and fungi.
The method of contamination is wide-ranging:
- Exposure via pests penetrating the packaging
- Mishandling of food
- Unsanitary packaging and processing environments
Food contamination can occur at any point in the processing or packaging system. Food packaging that gets damaged while sitting in a warehouse on a pallet can contaminate any packaging that is ruptured or exposed. One machine not sanitized properly can contaminate entire batches of packaged food.
Exposure to any of the above can cause or contribute to the following:
- Vital organ failure
The most prominent consequence of food contamination is injured or sickened consumers. Customers injured or sickened by contaminated food can lead to lawsuits, negative press, and brand issues. In addition, there is the financial impact caused by having to pull products off the shelves.
When a recall happens, the revenue generated by product sales is one loss. Another is transportation costs to bring the product back to the manufacturing plant, an investigation into what happened, and testing any products from that plant. Finally, the cost of rebuilding the reputation that the brand once enjoyed.
Restoring faith in a product is incredibly difficult. Tylenol, for example, had to shelve an entire product line after the poisonings in the 80s. The Hallmark/Westland meat recall resulted in the company declaring bankruptcy.
To reduce the risk of biological contamination, food manufacturers have introduced several measures:
- More secure packaging and quality checks
- Better protective clothing, like improved butcher coats, handling gloves, etc.
- Encouraging transportation and retail agents to report contamination
- Computerized inventory systems to narrow down products that might be contaminated
Because contamination can happen all along the food manufacturing process, one of the most effective tools the food manufacturing industry has is heightened diligence. From constant inspections to the ability to track potentially contaminated food, everyone along the line paying attention is not only a major aid but also vital to keeping food secure.
Apart from heightened diligence, another way to avoid contamination is continually improving packaging. While factors like bacterial contamination will always be present, it is possible to reduce the possibility of contamination by introducing new materials, technologies, and packaging methods that greatly reduce the possibility of contamination.
Food poisoning by various methods has been an issue for as long as humans have processed, packaged, delivered, and stored food. The three most common forms are physical, chemical, and microbiological contamination, and while humanity has made amazing progress in the area, all three still pose a threat. The first step in prevention, as it has always been, is elevated awareness.