NPR : News

Filed Under:

X-Rays Scan Foods For The Secret Ingredient That Could Break A Tooth

I don't know about you, but when I spoon into store-bought ice cream or chomp into hot dogs, I don't consider it a risky activity, one that could land me in the dentist's chair with a broken tooth. But it turns out that this does happen. Even Costco, the giant warehouse retailer, says it's true.

Not long ago, Costco was having big problems with bone in hot dogs. "We were having 15 to 20 broken teeth a month," Craig Wilson, Costco's vice president of quality assurance and food safety, told The Salt. "I finally got fed up with it and said, 'We need to put this under X-ray and you've got to get rid of these bones and cartilage.' As soon as they had it under X-ray, no more broken teeth. None. Zero."

Indeed, manufacturers are increasingly running foods through X-rays to hunt for metal or other contaminants that could lead to dangerous surprises. If they find anything, they make sure that batch doesn't reach the consumer. Costco has been a leader in pushing manufacturers to adopt X-rays for scary-sounding "foreign object control," the company says.

"Stuff in foods is the biggest issue," says Wilson.

For decades, food processors used metal detectors to scan food for stray bits of metal that would fall off assembly-line machinery. But the metal detectors couldn't find plastic, bone or rock, and they were terrible at scanning wet, salty products like cheese. (Frozen pizza really stymies a metal detector.) They also couldn't scan food in metal containers, like pies or canned drinks.

Each foreign object that makes it out the factory door can spark headaches, including customer complaints, recalls and lawsuits. So the requirement from Costco and other retailers hasn't been such a hard sell, despite the fact that a single X-ray machine can cost close to $50,000.

Food X-ray machines are similar in concept to the X-rays that scan suitcases at the airport, but more sophisticated. They can scan multiple items in a second, with software judging whether the product is adulterated, rather than a beleaguered TSA agent.

"You pass good products through it and it learns the signature of it," says Bob Ries, lead product manager for Thermo Fisher Scientific, a manufacturer of food X-ray machines. "It learns to ignore the product." Trainers then feed through known contaminants, to make sure the machine spots them.

It's nice to know I don't have to worry about metal shavings in my ice cream, but is X-ray scanning safe? The radiation used in food scanning is much less than what's used for a medical X-ray, and also much less than the amount used to irradiate food to kill microbes. Ries says the food comes out the other end unchanged, aside from the fact that it's much less likely to contain unpleasant junk.

We first heard about this technology thanks to Steve Alexander, a reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune who wrote about how a local bakery uses X-rays to make sure its pies contain nothing but fruit.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

'Star Wars' Editors Defy Hollywood Conventions

In a film industry often dominated by men, there's at least one exception: Many editors are women. Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey speak about their work on the new Star Wars.
NPR

Florida Says Its Fruits, Vegetables Are Safe From Invasive Fruit Fly

Since September, Florida has been fighting an infestation of the Oriental fruit fly, an invasive pest that threatened more than 400 crops. The state declared the insect eradicated as of Saturday.
NPR

7 Things To Know About Presidential Appointments To The Supreme Court

Republicans are adamant they will stop anyone President Obama names to replace for Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court. It's possible Obama's nominee would face the longest wait in history for a vote.
NPR

West Point Students' Plan To Counter ISIS Online Strategy

The State Department sponsored a contest to find the best ways to combat ISIS propaganda online. A group of cadets from West Point got second prize. Rachel Martin speaks with team member CJ Drew.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.