With the many technological advances and innovations of the twenty first century, today’s consumers expect and demand convenience, especially when it comes to their daily diet. Since first coming to the attention of a wider audience in 1954, the idea of TV dinners has become extremely appealing to the mass market but consumer awareness of the risks associated with buying ready meals is increasing, leading to a more cautious approach when it comes to purchasing products.
For private labels, it is now more important than ever to use a food manufacturer that complies with recognized industry standards such as traceability which requires the raw material and components intended or expected to be incorporated into edible products to be followed through all stages, including receipt, production, processing and distribution. This helps ensure that food introduced to the market is safe for consumption without imposing injuries or health risks to the consumer, meeting the expectations of all parties involved. Once seen as a “cheap” option, private labels are raising the bar increasingly competing against national brands, maintaining their renowned affordable pricing with continuous developments in product quality and packaging. Currently, with the stringent economy, ‘more for less’ is a common desire for many, which augurs well for the future of private labels. Retailers now prefer to have an extensive display of affordable and good quality options rather than more expensive national brands.
The ready meal sector has a diverse range of consumers from professional individuals to families, particularly those with a lower income trying to stay afloat in the current economic environment. Aside from serving as a competitive advantage, the varied genre and increasing consumer base has called for the need of diversification in meal types, flavoring and subsequently packaging which promotes longer lasting and healthier meals. The options for ready meals have therefore extended immensely since the days when turkey was one of the only options. Today, supermarket fridges are stacked with popular meals from all over the world with predominant popularity for Italian, English, Indian and Chinese meals.
Food manufacturers are under increased pressure to offer more choice and value to consumers and the competition dynamics have changed. The savor is no longer the main reason a product outdoes the competition. Convenience is key; so stretching quality as far as packaging size, its material and practicality, now goes a long way.
The need for product inspection
The focus on the production process of ready meals continues to increase as consumers worldwide are becoming more health conscious, with worries over the integrity of their ready meals, associated health risks, contaminants and overall health and safety. It would particularly appear that not knowing what is in the food we consume daily, is the main concern as consumers are under the full control of food processors and manufacturers. As a consequence, building customer trust has become a key marketing focus for many food brands, alongside providing supporting information printed on packaging as testimony to the product’s provenance and quality.
Unlike the traditional process of relying on the human eye to detect contaminant within a mass of food, advanced technology has been refined with improved accuracy of identifying foreign bodies. Machinery which offers this level of precision has seen food processors and manufacturers’ worldwide benefit from speedier and more efficient operations, leading to an outstanding result in the delivery of food health and safety.
Stories of contamination within readily available meals are not an uncommon subject, with some cases involving screws or even glass. These and many other similar cases have the potential to totally destroy a brand. It is therefore not surprising that any player operating in the food industry must comply with rigorous laws and regulations. Failure to meet the food safety standards can have catastrophic consequences for both consumers and businesses, leading to injury and, in some cases, even death for the former, whereas a product recall can damage brand reputation or even potential business closure. This is why due diligence is another key benefit of product inspection, providing food processors and manufacturers with the backup necessary in case of an unlikely incident.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in the European Union (EU) states in the General Food Law (Article 18) that any food must be tracked through all stages of production. The same rigorous requirements are applicable to numerous geographical regions worldwide, including the US as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Guidance and Regulation document (Section 204) similarly states that the development and demonstration of appropriate technologies must be in place, including technologies existing on the date of enactment of this Act, that enhance the tracking and tracing of food. In order to provide consumers as well as governments with desired information such as the origin of the product, quality and its journey through the supply chain, traceability systems should be in place, logging and documenting data associated to the production process. The traceability output forms part of mandatory labeling requirements which have to be available at the point of sale.
Innovations such as the Eagle SimulTask™ software enable manufacturers to meet and monitor industry requirements by gathering historical data which is then stored in a database. Referral to this data is easily viewable for analysis with useful statistical activities including trend-lines, histograms, product reports or barcode specific information.
Ensuring product safety
So what is the plan to maintain ready meals as popular as they have become? At this point, for food processors, manufacturers, retailers and private labels, the answer is simple – investment in x-ray technologies will help with the detection and removal of contaminants, ensuring health and safety within the food industry. Tight legislation relating to the safe delivery of food to the marketplace is not only seeing suppliers change the way they run their businesses but also resulting in more robust technology coming into play with the capability to support processors and manufacturers with essential industry requirements such as monitoring, labelling, analyzing, documenting and reporting.
X-ray systems like the Eagle™ 320 PRO have the potential to address stringent industry requirements by accurately conducting product inspection. This system is specifically designed to inspect small to mid-sized packaged products such as ready meals in plastic containers, cartons/boxes and pouches. In order to meet specific needs of manufacturers and processors with different scales of operation, different systems are available with the same core capabilities. Additional software such as Material Discrimination Software (MDX) is advantageous in providing enhanced x-ray inspection providing food processors with a higher level of contaminant detection. MDX technology is suitable for contaminant detection in various food products but it is particularly suitable for ready meals which are generally dense and multi textured. Unlike traditional x-ray inspection, it is able to discriminate materials by their chemical composition (atomic number) which enables the detection of historically undetectable inorganic contaminants.
Advanced product inspection systems also have the ability to inspect packaged products for correct weight, metal, other foreign objects, size and shape simultaneously and online. Packages containing contaminants are automatically rejected from the production line. By making the use of such advanced systems, manufacturers are able to benefit from several factors which include the elimination of costly recalls, Public Relations disasters, unnecessary high labor expenses and the effective assessment of fill levels and seal integrity.
The future of TV dinners
With so many ready meal options to choose from, private labels face fierce competition. In order to stand out from the rest not only through savor quality, packaging and pricing, private labels need to get their branding right. The use of more engaging and enticing images to promote the usually hidden content, and ground breaking innovations that take into account not only the practical needs of consumers but also that of the environment will go a long way.
The factors that surround the regulations and requirements of ready meals production go way beyond the focus on health and safety, consumers are now also conscious of the environmental impact their packaged meal has, thus the importance of recyclable, biodegradable and even the forward looking edible packaging. With innovations in packaging also forming part of the criteria and adding to the fast moving industry reforms, it is vital for the inspection technology not to fall behind and further develop its ability to inspect new and complex packaging without compromising any of its properties, whilst maintaining its ability to detect and remove contaminants effectively.
About the author, Kyle Thomas, Strategic Business Unit (SBU) Manager
Kyle Thomas, Strategic Business Unit (SBU) Manager at Eagle Product Inspection (eaglepi.com), is responsible for research and development and the expansion of Eagle's product portfolio to meet the demands of existing and potential customers in the food and beverage manufacturing and processing market.