Britain’s appetite for food-on-the-go (FOTG) looks set to continue, with greater product innovations, clean and healthy eating, ethnic foods and artisan local produce driving consumers away from the daily sliced bread sandwich ritual. 

Fortress Technology’s European Sales Director Phil Brown explores the implications that this has on the 6,100-plus micro, small and medium sized enterprises* who are catering to our more adventurous pallets and explains why metal detectors are the most cost effective and popular route to protect FOTG suppliers from the most likely contaminant risk - metal.

According to statistics gathered by DEFRA for the annual Food Statistics Pocketbook, SMEs in the UK food sector account for 96% of businesses, 30% of employment and 24% of turnover. There are also an estimated 40,000 artisan food and drink manufacturers in the UK, preparing and selling everything from bread to cheese, convenience salads to street-style food, either direct to consumers, or via retailers, deli’s and restaurants.  

Large numbers of these convenience lines carry the ‘artisan’ label, conveying a message that each item has been personally prepared with care using quality ingredients. Typically viewed by consumers as higher-end products, brand integrity and food safety is paramount. And it’s during the preparation and packing phase where a possible metal contaminant can slip through the net.

In the raw ingredient phase, food is exposed to different processes - from slicing meat, filleting fish, grinding spice or mixing dry and wet baking ingredients. Later down the line, SMEs may be cutting salads, vegetables and meats for appetising lunchtime kits, preparing nutrient rich soups, or cooking and mixing new office breakfast staples like Bircher muesli and fruit compotes - again introducing a possible metal contaminant into the food supply chain.

Another good example of how metal fragments can be introduced to products is in the preparation of side salads and fresh cut produce. The cycle can involve preliminary washing, often in a metal drum, abrasive peeling to remove fibrous skin, coring, trimming and cutting. Some products are then passed through a vibrating screen to sort produce by size. Before the packing can commence, there’s often another wash cycle, sometimes several in the case of leafy greens. All of these processes and exposure to timesaving preparation equipment increases the risk of tiny fragments entering the production chain.

Installing a metal detection system is the first line of defence. Even if inspecting for metal contaminants isn’t a retailer requirement now, SMEs that start to institute systems at the early stage will be ready to expand and meet the demands of the more stringent retailer Codes of Practice when its product range takes off.  Cost of equipment is naturally a big factor for SMEs, especially during the early business years. X-ray - the other food inspection alternative - is generally far more expensive than even the newest metal detector. The running costs are also much higher. Typically, an SME can expect to pay in the region of £4,000 to £18,000 for a metal detector. This depends on the size and complexity of the application. But when compared to around £35,000 to £40,000 to install x-ray, it’s quite a price difference. 

Metal detectors also tend to perform better on products that have wet or conductive properties. That’s because they are more sensitive to product effect. Many FOTG products - from bread and baked goods to salads and sushi, to cold meats and cheese - are especially prone to this product effect. It comes down to basic physics. Water, like metal, is a conductive. What’s more, most fresh produce comes in varying densities. For example, a sliced carrot compared to grated carrots, or whole mushrooms compared to sliced, will react in different ways in a metal detector’s magnetic field. 

Last year, Fortress launched its new Interceptor range. Ideal for SMEs producing FOTG, the Interceptor reliably detects the range of ferrous and non-ferrous metals, including aluminium, at a fraction of the cost of x-ray but offering the same performance levels.  The machine also factors in product density, which continues to pose a particular challenge for x-ray.

Over 90% of Fortress metal detectors are sold to UK food factories and in the last 12 months over 60% of new machine orders were installed by SMEs with fewer than 250 employees. “The food SME segment makes up a huge part of the overall industry,” observes Phil. “There are more SMEs in food than any other UK sector. Europe-wide, SMEs with fewer than 249 employees account for more than 50% of the food and drink industry turnover**. And as an SME ourselves, we understand better than most the pressure that success can bring and the importance of trust, affordability and down to earth, responsive service support.” 

Made to order in the UK, Fortress metal detectors can be deployed at various food processing checkpoints, including packing conveyors, pipeline configurations or gravity systems. Renowned for being easy to use, they offer an ambitious enterprise of every size reliability and brand protection, setting them on the path to future success.

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