Product Inspection of Plant-based Meat-substitute Proteins Essential to Prevent Foreign Object Contamination

Preventing foreign object contamination at key points in the plant-based food manufacturing process where materials from processing equipment and other sources may become embedded in the product is a chief concern to ensure food safety and quality. Plant-based proteins designed to imitate the taste, look and experience of eating meat have mostly similar inspection needs as inspection of animal.

An example of this is the way metal detection is used in beef processing as the first line of defense to detect metals such as buckshot or hooks embedded in large, unprocessed chunks of beef. Plant-based proteins don’t have the same risk as embedded metal, but there are other important concerns.

Plant-based meats are food products created to imitate the texture and flavor of traditional meat products by using alternative protein sources and so are not actually animal protein or “meat”. Several alternative proteins have gained traction in recent years, and plant-based “meats” are one example.

Some products are 100% plant-based while others are animal and vegetable product blends. In both cases, it is necessary to have a method of extracting and concentrating protein from plants to create the product.

The legumes, grains, nuts and vegetables that are used in these novel food products are grown on farms and in orchards and fields. Sometimes glass, metals and rock particles buried in the dirt inadvertently enter the production process because they are harvested along with the fresh foods themselves.

Meat substitutes tend to be highly processed when they are made from plant-based protein products and treated vegetable proteins. Common base proteins include chickpeas, lentils, peas and soybeans. Extrusion and forming are used to condense and texture the vegetable proteins.

Specific texture profiles of the finished meat-like product can be achieved by customizing the methods used. To imitate a specific meat product as closely as possible, texturizers, flavors and colors are often added.

Risk of contamination from the equipment in use is introduced by each processing step. It is possible for loose bolts and nuts, broken pieces of screens, or other physical objects to drop onto the conveyor belts during processing.

A proven and trustworthy defender against metal contamination that may be introduced mid-process is metal detecting. Metal detecting can be employed at great benefit both before or after the extrusion process.

Multiscan metal detector technology provides a higher probability of finding stainless steel, non-ferrous and ferrous contaminants in challenging applications because it is capable of scanning up to five user-selectable frequencies at a time.

Risks must be identified, and preventive controls need to be put in place, as is the case with any HACCP-based food safety plan. X-ray inspection is a great choice to defend from both dense, non-metal and metal contaminants once the food is in its final packaging form.

Hard plastic, rocks and glass can be found using an x-ray detection and inspection system as they are based on the thickness and density of the contaminant and the product.

The image processing engine identifies each contaminant because dense foreign matter appears darker in the X-ray image. This is beneficial when proteins include legumes, grains and nuts that could contain these physical contaminants in the supplier’s bulk materials.

It is also important to consider various types of packaging. For relatively flat packaged foods like vacuum-sealed patties, an X-ray works best, for example. No matter the case, maintaining the utmost food safety measures to avoid costly recalls and to prevent contamination is important for emerging foods and manufacturers.

There is huge upside potential for food processors offered by the plant-based protein sector. There is constant innovation by food companies from niche players to large traditional food manufacturers to meet rapidly growing consumer demand and curiosity. 

As producers attempt to take an increasing share of flexitarian consumer spend, it is of the utmost importance that the quality of their products equal or exceed those of the meat products they are trying to replace; a modern product inspection program is integral to that plant-based food product growth.

It doesn’t matter if the protein is a non-meat or meat food product when it comes to consumer health and food safety. While the product is beginning to gain traction, the last thing an emerging food brand needs is to damage its reputation with a product recall as a result of a contamination escape.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Thermo Fisher Scientific – Solutions for Industrial and Safety Applications.

For more information on this source, please visit Thermo Fisher Scientific – Solutions for Industrial and Safety Applications.

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