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How a smart conveyor belt can improve food safety

Keeping food safe is an ongoing focus around the world, but one method to reduce the risk of food contamination might surprise you: improved conveyor belts. The conveyor belt has been an integral part of manufacturing since Henry Ford used them on his assembly line, and they continue to play a significant role today in food manufacturing, distribution and sales.

The first thing that comes to mind is probably the conveyor belts at supermarkets. In a study from Michigan State University, which looked at 100 belts in 42 grocery stores, they found mold, yeast, the disease-causing bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (staph), or other bacteria on each of them. Hand-washing is an important and effective way to prevent the spread of bacteria.

However, there’s another threat to food that’s often overlooked: plastic contamination. The number of food products that were recalled because they contained pieces of plastic or rubber more than doubled over the past 12 months in North America and Europe. About 60 percent of the food recalls due to plastic contamination in the United States were traced to chicken and bakery products. However, dairy (17 percent) and vegetables and salads (13 percent) encountered the issue as well.

So what does this have to do with conveyor belts?

Bits and Pieces

By the time you’re moving a box of cereal or any other food item from your supermarket shopping cart to the cashier there’s a good chance it has already travelled on several conveyor belts. For example, there are conveyor belts specifically designed for grape harvesting. There are also conveyor belts made for machines that form croissants and French bread.

One problem is that many of these belts use low quality materials. And every now and then, these parts get jammed, break or wear down, resulting in bits of plastic entering the food production line — and ultimately into the food we were planning to eat.

DuPont is addressing this issue by joining forces with Esbelt S.A., a Barcelona-based company that makes conveyor belts used in 85 countries. Esbelt has already tackled the issue of bacteria on conveyor belts by developing antimicrobial conveyor belt covers, which kill bacteria as they begin to grow. Esbelt is now working with DuPont to crack down on plastic contamination.

The new conveyor belt from Esbelt helps address the plastic contamination issue by using DuPont™ Hytrel®, a material which combines the flexibility of rubber with the processability of thermoplastics. “Hytrel® lasts longer, allows higher flexible strength and is more resistant to potential tear than those made with other material,” explains Franco Marabelli, global business consultant, development material handling for DuPont Performance Materials.

X-ray Protection

Critically, Hytrel® is an x-ray and metal-detectable plastic, so the food product can be x-rayed to determine if a piece of plastic or other contaminate has gotten into the food product. In a recent survey by Food Online, 77 percent of food manufacturers said x-ray machines and metal detectors were “very important” parts of their food processing and packaging operations, meaning these Hytrel® belts could have an enormous impact.

“This new conveyor belt will be able to control the quality of the product on the belt through both metal and x-ray detection and ensure products of the highest quality, while enhancing the ability of food manufacturers to demonstrate due diligence,” says Federico Segura, Esbelt’s managing director.

While high-quality, x-ray detectable plastic costs more, it can be much more cost-effective in the long run than the actual and reputational costs that come from a food recall — such as a 2016 recall of 130,000 pounds of chicken nuggets that had plastic material, which may have come from a round, hard plastic rod used to connect a plastic transfer belt. The Food and Drug Administration said the contaminated food went through an x-ray system that could not detect the plastic.

Advances like the new Esbelt conveyor could help eliminate such costly issues and ensure the global food supply remains safer.

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