To many of us, it’s hard to imagine a world when “ready-made meals” couldn’t be found in your local grocer’s freezer. These easy to prepare foods are a staple in many people’s diets and seem to fit perfectly with our “non-stop-gotta-keep-moving” lifestyle.
Before the Second World War, these meals didn’t exist; the development of ready meals was a wartime necessity designed to keep soldiers well fed when fresh food wasn’t available. Today, they’re produced at an almost unprecedented pace and scale, and for that, we need sophisticated technology to produce these products, but also technology to ensure they’re safe to consume.
What Are Ready Meals?
If you don’t know already, ready meals are meals that are generally full, pre-cooked meals that simply require reheating at home. In spite of traditionally high levels of preservatives and sodium, these meals are marketed as being complete, nutritious substitutes to conventional cooking. Automatic processes using state of the art components, requiring very little in the way of human involvement, are by and large responsible for their manufacture.
If They’re Prepared Automatically, How Do Manufacturers Make Sure They’re Safe?
Manufacturers of ready meals face a number of challenges in their day-to-day operations. Some meals, for instance, can be quite complex; it’s important for them, as a company to ensure the level of quality, as well as the taste remains consistent for the consumer. This means that the ingredients used (quality and quantity) need to be consistent each and every time.
Some meals, like the iconic television dinner, come completely segmented. This makes inspection (using x-ray or another electronic visual system) relatively easy. Not only does this configuration allow the inspection devices to determine if the components aren’t properly segmented, it also allows them to easily identify any foreign objects that have found their way into the product.
Some contaminants however are too small to identify, and in complex dishes like a casserole, it can be difficult for visual inspection technology to correctly identify contaminants. For that reason, along with stringent food industry safety guidelines, additional technology is required.
When it comes to contaminants like metal, conventional wisdom suggests that food manufacturers use strong magnets to ensure that no metal is present. Unfortunately, there are a number of flaws with that logic. The first is that most food processing plants using machinery that is made from stainless steel, a material that magnets aren’t particularly useful against. If any stainless steel found its way into the product, magnets would be of little use. Even if facilities used machines that are made of ferrous (magnetic) metals, there’s no guarantee that they’d be able to extract the metal from within a dense ingredient.
For this reason, manufacturers of ready meals and other food and beverage facilities regularly employ metal detectors in their production lines. These machines can detect the inclusion of both ferrous and non-ferrous (non-magnetic) metals in quantities that can’t be observed by visual inspection.
Common Types of Metal Detectors
There are two basic types of metal detectors in the food and beverage manufacturing industry. The first is known as a general purpose head system and the second, ferrous-in foil head system. Using a general purpose head device allows for the detection of both ferrous and non-ferrous metals in foods that are fresh or frozen, wrapped or unwrapped. In foil head systems, for their part, are designed to locate ferrous and non-ferrous metals, including stainless steel, within foil wrapped foods.
Regardless of which type of detector is used, both play a crucial role in ensuring food quality and safety in an age where the sheer volume of product being produced simply cannot be inspected by the human eye.
In many ways, the technology used in these plants is responsible for the continued growth in the ready foods industry. It’s safe to say that it will continue to play a vital role in the years to come as the industry continues to evolve to one that not only provides more ready meal options, but increasingly healthier ones.
At this point, it seems highly unlikely that the pace of modern life will slow down any time soon – and in order for the demand of these products to keep pace, consumer confidence in their safety cannot falter, even for a moment.