When we reach for our favorite foods, we can rest assured that one company constantly makes sure these foods are free of harmful contaminants. The company, Safeline Inc. of Tampa, Fla., is the world leader in metal detection systems used in bakery, dairy, meat and poultry, snack foods, bulk solids, pharmaceutical, and plastics and chemicals industries.
“We are larger than our three closest competitors combined, which is quite unusual,” says Viggo Nielsen, president. “I don’t know of many industries where the number one company is bigger than the combined market share of its closest competitors.”
This high degree of success is impressive, especially considering the company has been in business only since 1988, when it was founded in Manchester, England, by several industry professionals with expertise in metal detection. They identified a need in several markets and introduced an innovative digital metal detector that was unmatched in sensitivity. “The technology available to the industry at that time had stagnated and the founders saw the need for a more aggressive research and development effort which used digital signal processing (DSP),” explains Nielsen. “So metal detection became more of an exact science and the goal of the company was to offer not only a higher level of technology, but more attention to customer support and service than was available.”
Needle in the Haystack
“You might say we are looking not for the needle in the haystack, but the head of the needle that might be in food products,” says Nielsen. These contaminants might include staples falling out of packaging material into the food during processing; or lead shot coming in from farm fields; or even hypodermic needles present in animals when they are delivered to meat-processing plants. It also can include metals that occasionally fall off processing equipment.
“Metal detection as it pertains to food is not something people think about in general,” Nielsen says. “But it is a very important part of a quality-control program in any food-processing plant.” Companies need to protect the integrity of their brand name and although there are a very small percentage of food products that are contaminated with metals, the downside risk is simply too large not to take seriously, Nielsen says. “And this is why they come to Safeline – so we can help them set up a good metal detection program for their operations.”
Typically, metal detection is part of a HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points) program in food-processing companies. Safeline can act as a consultant to help companies determine where in their process they might want to consider placing metal detection equipment. Companies will usually place a unit early in the process to identify and eliminate any metals coming in with harvested products. “You want to get these pieces of metal out during the raw material stream so as not to damage your processing equipment,” Nielsen explains.
“Early in the processing, you want to protect your equipment and further downstream you are protecting the consumer – as well as your brand name,” Nielsen adds. “Just imagine if you hear on the evening news of a product recall and what that can do to your brand name. People may not remember the specific product it affected, but they will remember your brand name and all of your products will be avoided by consumers.” Metal detector systems are available in gravity-fed systems to handle bulk-fed products such as grain flowing into a silo. Systems also include pipeline metal detectors for handling liquids and conveyor metal detectors for handling packaged products.
In addition to its line of metal detection systems, Safeline produces X-ray inspection systems. “It’s basically the same technology being applied in airports for screening luggage,” says Nielsen. “It’s an automatic process wherein the computer software will analyze all the images and alert us when there is a contaminant in the product.” Safeline’s X-ray technology can detect stone, glass, some types of plastic and calcified bone.
The company’s X-ray units also can be used to measure mass or weight. “Say you have an assembled meal like a TV dinner,” explains Nielsen. “The X-ray units can even determine if there is enough gravy or enough mashed potatoes.”
“What has evolved over the last 50 years in metal-detection technology is the degree of sensitivity and the ability for these units to be able to find smaller and smaller pieces of metal contamination – and to do all of this without creating false rejects,” Nielsen says. Technological advances in Safeline equipment have helped filter out electrical noise or mechanical vibration – each of which can result in false rejects.
About 80 percent of Safeline systems are sold to handle food-processing applications. Systems are also used in pharmaceutical companies to check pills when they come from pill presses; still other systems are used in textile applications to assure there are no sewing needles left in garments as they leave the factory.
“We also make systems used in specialty applications such as in the plastics industry where plastic granules are checked before entering injection molders to make sure there are no metal pieces present that could damage the molding machines,” Nielsen says.
Another reason for Safeline’s continued success is due to its employees. “We have been able to attract and keep some of the best people in this industry because of our premier name and reputation,” Nielsen says. “We pride ourselves in supporting our customers every hour of every day because whenever customers call our hotline, they will get a service tech to help them.”
Safeline plans to maintain its lead in the industry by continuing to develop and refine the technology. “We will continue to make our equipment more user-friendly and more reliable,” Nielsen says. Safeline built its reputation on providing absolute and unparalleled quality. “Our customers know they can trust our products. They have a lot of other issues to think about and we don’t want them to spend unnecessary time worrying about the quality or performance of our equipment.”
Continuously striving for higher degrees of quality in its equipment, Safeline would like to be noticed as a resource in the industry as well as for the regulatory environment, says Nielsen. “We would like to be viewed in the industry as consultants regarding issues of metal and other solid contaminant detection. We want Safeline to be the logical place for companies to seek answers,” concludes Nielsen. “If we can do this, we will be able to continue to bring forward some unique products to satisfy the requirements of this very important industry.”