As part of the third-largest quick service restaurant chain in the United States, Wendy’s is relied upon to supply safe and wholesome food products. Its customers, employees and franchises depend on it. Food safety is the most important responsibility that we have as a Quality Assurance Department. This can be obtained by a true partnership with our suppliers and continuous diligence in exploring new technologies.

At Wendy’s, we take a systemic approach to identifying and removing foreign materials from our food supply. Our global Quality Assurance team has a laserbeam focus on addressing these problems at the source. Technology has made great advances in the past decade but it’s not a magic bullet. All of the technologies we use are, at best, semi-automatic; they all require human intervention to be effective. At some point, we may have fully automatic systems, but that day is not here yet, or at least unaffordable at this point.

Our first line of defense is our quality systems in place at each processing plant, as well as a trained workforce and a system that alerts them to possible presence of foreign materials, whether bone fragments, metallic objects or plastic or rubber fragments. For instance, in our poultry operation, bones are kept with the carcass after fabrication so that if a bone is missing, associates are alerted and the product is immediately quarantined so that highly trained personnel deal can with it and resolve the situation. The meat may then be either reworked or condemned, depending on the situation.

We also use technology to detect contamination, and utilize redundancy to increase the odds that we will catch anything missed by human observation.

Metal Detection
Metal detectors have improved remarkably over the years. Nearly all processors use digital detection on their production lines, in large part because the detectors have become more and more reliable and sensitive as well as easier to use and far more rugged. The food-processing environment, by its nature, is far less forgiving than environments in most other industries. Moisture and extreme and variable temperatures put technology under stress, and the high amount of frequency interference from machinery, lights and motors often interfere with metal detectors to create false rejects.

Those problems have been addressed with waterproof detectors and filtering software that greatly improves the sensitivity and reliability of the equipment. Nevertheless, this is a critical point in our HACCP plan and redundancy is absolutely vital. Depending on the type of process and its associated risks, we use multiple metal detectors both on and off the production line.

In addition to physical conditions, the very nature of metal fragments is such that multiple detectors are absolutely necessary. The size and orientation of a metal fragment are variables that require several detectors to guarantee that the fragment is caught.

It is important to size the detector head to the product that is scanned. For instance, a box detector may be appropriate for detecting large fragments in bulk product, but as the product moves along the line, smaller and more focused apertures are necessary to detect smaller fragments. In metal detection, bigger is not better. The detector must be aligned with the product.

Foreign material also tends to shift positions as it moves down the line. At one point, it may be oriented longitudinally, but at others, it may be pointed directly at the detector or may be lying flat, which makes it far more difficult to catch. Therefore, detectors set for tighter focus and greater sensitivity are necessary.

This is particularly true for products such as chicken filets, which should be scanned individually and with a more sensitive reading head. Once the product is packed, a larger aperture is appropriate as a final check for adulteration either during or after packing. Once rejected, product should be removed immediately from the line, isolated and run through an offline metal detector to ensure that the product is not reintroduced accidentally through human error.

In addition to metal detectors, Wendy’s is working with x-ray technology, which has improved greatly in recent years. Since it measures product density rather than simply detecting metal, x-ray machines were prone to false positives with products of variable density, which includes most meat products. However, with improvement in software and x-rayreceiving hardware, a trained operator can now tell the difference between bone or metal and connective tissue or other non-threatening components.

We are continually evaluating x-ray and other technologies that may include ultrasound or laser technologies. These methods are becoming increasingly reliable and, as they continue to improve, we’re moving them onto the line. These technologies are clearly the future of the industry to detect product contamination in a timely manner. The clear prevention strategy remains with good process control at each step in the process.

Bone Detection
The first line of defense remains such process control programs as SPC (Statistical Process Control) and FMEA (Failure Mode and Effects Analysis) in addition to a well-trained, manufacturing staff. As mentioned above, if any bones are missing when chickens are deboned, we immediately conduct an enhanced inspection of the product. The product is removed from the production line, examined carefully and then retrimmed to remove bone that was missed the first time. X-ray technology is particularly useful here because unlike metal detectors, it can identify bone fragments.

Most important, the images from xray systems are getting sharper and more detailed. Bone fragments are highlighted in color, so there are very few false positives. An operator can instantly distinguish between an actual fragment and a particularly dense product or harmless connective tissue. False rejects are particularly dangerous because, at some point, staff will assume an alarm is just another false alarm, and attentiveness will slip.

At Wendy’s, we eliminate the "boy who cried wolf" tendency by requiring immediate acknowledgement of every positive action, allowing supervisors to maintain a maximum level of alertness. As technology improves, we hope to have fewer false rejects; recently the level of those false rejects has declined sharply.

Plastics, rubber and glass
Wendy’s is taking a full-spectrum approach to eliminating plastic and rubber fragment adulteration in our products. Glass is relatively easy; no glass is allowed at any point in our plants or our suppliers’ plants. Otherwise, the first step is to eliminate, as much as possible, all plastic and rubber products from the production floor. In many cases, we have replaced plastic or rubber components in machinery with metal parts, which are far easier to detect.

However, there are many instances in which we cannot replace plastic with metal. In those cases, we are banning clear or white plastic, which is difficult to detect, with bright blue plastic that stands out against meat products. While some technologies can detect plastic and rubber by their densities, constant visual inspection is vitally important.

We are experimenting with metalimpregnated dyes for plastic and rubber parts. The problem is that while this technology works well in some industries, it is far from perfected for the food industry. While suppliers have developed rubber and plastic components that can withstand the often-extreme variations in temperature and humidity that the food-processing industry requires, many of these components become too brittle, fail to withstand friction or wear too quickly with the addition of these metal-impregnated dyes.

We are always looking for new products that improve our food safety. We’re entering an era of far-improved technology. Metal detectors, the backbone of safety systems, have only been available for a little over 20 years, and the early versions were almost useless in a foodprocessing environment. It took a decade to develop waterproof versions and since then, the technology has become vastly more accurate and reliable.

Food processing offers far greater challenges and consequently it takes time to adapt promising technologies to our environment. For now, we are not going to inspect our way to food safety, nor are we going to let technology do all the work. Instead, employee training, constant human inspection, redundant technology and utilizing the right technology at the right point are used as keys to a comprehensive food safety program.

Detection technology is good and is getting better but our plan is to identify the paths by which adulterants enter the production chain and introduce a zerotolerance policy to each of those entry points.

In recent years, we have seen an industry trend in which there are more recalls and, on average, larger recalls. This is partly explained by the rapid growth of the industry as a whole and party explained by the improvement in detection, whether of biological threats or foreign materials. However, part of the explanation is a systemic breakdown; if food safety is not the top priority and organized systems for detection are not established and funded, companies can spring leaks. Wendy’s task is to continually improve our systems and identify all vulnerabilities.

German Suarez is the Corporate Quality Assurance Director, Domestic and International Operations, of Wendy’s International, Inc., since 1996. He has a Master’s of Science degree in Management and a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Engineering from North Carolina State University. He is a member of the American Society for Quality.