A Heat-seeking Solution for Food Safety

As part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FMSA), the FDA has announced the initial Food Traceability List (FTL), identifying foods that will require additional traceability records by January 20, 2026. © mandritoiu – stock.adobe.com

Preparing for the Food Safety Modernization Act

By Eran Sinbar, Co-founder and CEO of Yoran Imaging

For years, food industry traceability has been largely aspirational – a “next big thing” pushed perpetually back.

No more. With the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) announcement of the initial Food Traceability List – a subset of the Food Safety Modernization Act – “aspirational” will become “actual” promptly on January 20, 2026. 1

Unsurprisingly, the initial list focuses on categories likeliest to cause foodborne illnesses: leafy vegetables, melons, tomatoes, cheeses, certain fish. Inevitably, the roster of traceability-mandated items will expand as both regulators and food companies realize the value of verifiable digital records tracking where products are processed and packaged. Among other benefits is proof of proper process and, should something go awry post-production, exacting batch identification. It’s far easier to recall and destroy, say, 200 bags of romaine than 200,000; precision traceability makes this possible, to the benefit of both consumers and brand owners. The bigger the production bandwidth, the more beneficial exactingly traceable quality control becomes; many food companies are manufacturing products at line speeds of 6,000 items per hour or more – and with demand and desire to approach 10,000.

Another long-running trend is the buzzword of all buzzwords: Sustainability. But buzzwords inherently lack specificity and, with a term as loosely defined as sustainability, the devil is often in the details.

For example, for food companies utilizing package closure via heat-sealing, the push for more sustainable packaging substrates brings a noted challenge: narrower heat-sealing tolerances. Too little heat yields a weak seal, while too much risks burning the material. Discovering and maintaining the best-possible heat seal temperatures for various recyclable materials – as well as the proper sealing pressure – is typically a time-consuming, trial-and-error endeavor. The process can be a real headache, and a frustrating, resource-zapping one at that.

Two birds with one stone, anyone? With a broad array of acceptable ways to meet looming traceability mandates, and with shouts for sustainable packaging materials growing ever louder, a two-for-one solution exists for food companies utilizing heat-sealable packaging.

The bonus? Another long-aspirational buzzword: Automation. Traceability means accountability – and that requires saying goodbye to something that should have ended long ago: inspection via imprecise sampling.

The days of looking to out-of-reach horizons for tomorrow’s solutions are over. The age of thermal imaging inspection has dawned, and with it a clear path to product traceability and packaging sustainability.

Thermal imaging’s potential to automate heat seal inspection includes compliance with FSMA track and trace deadlines, and expediting shifts to sustainable packaging materials. © ltyuan – stock.adobe.com

Suspect Inspection

On food production lines around the world, automation now efficiently and precisely handles tasks previously performed less perfectly by humans – everything from initial processing, sorting and conveying to end-of-line quality control elements like X-ray scanner detection and checkweighing.

However, sufficiently automating certain inspection processes has lagged behind this trend curve. Among the most prominent of these is heat seal monitoring and verification. Oddly considering our technology-driven times, over 95% of food companies utilizing heat sealed packaging are still testing manually, which literally means occasionally pulling a product off the line and looking at it.

The food sector deserves better. Heat sealing is a precision-dependent, scenario-specific step where anything from sealing temperature, sealing time, and applied pressure to a package’s individual sealing area and angle can affect a mission-critical element – proper package closure – and lead to discarded product, disgruntled consumers, and disparaged reputations.

Promisingly, the technology now exists not only to automate filling and heat seal inspection – substantially increasing both accuracy and potential production speeds – but to capture and report that sealing data in a manner that informs optimized manufacturing and meets pending FSMA traceability mandates.

Thermal imaging is marvelously meticulous. For heat seal packaging inspection, it can provide sophisticated, value-added monitoring for an intricate, multifaceted process. Not only does it provide brand owners with a record of when and where a product was sealed, but also the conditions under which it was sealed.

In a landscape where even perishable foods travel great distances to their final destinations, such data amounts to instant insurance against undo accusations of culpability in the case of an adverse event. If the package was airtight, so is a brand owner’s case against any unfair finger-pointing.

And from there, a list of “compliance-plus” benefits come into play. The same data used to comply with forthcoming track and trace rules also yields digestible insight into equipment performance. Thermal imaging brings the potential not only for 100% packaging inspection, but also for comprehensive insight that optimizes production by catching negative trends early, promoting predictive maintenance, avoiding wasted products or packaging materials, and generally doing what the best manufacturing systems do: keep the line moving.

Sustainability Made Simpler

As mentioned, transitioning to more recyclable, eco-friendly packaging substrates is easier said than done. Heat-sealed packaging applications are no exception. For starters, as brand owners look to minimize the overall amount of material in packaging – often called “right-sizing” – the likelihood of product getting caught in (and therefore compromising) the heat seal process climbs precipitously.

In many cases, sustainability means simplification – for example, switching to a mono-material substrate more compatible with existing recycling streams. Here, a huge hurdle for food manufacturers is that most of these materials have far narrower heat sealing windows than conventional substrates.

Let’s look at a longstanding but less-than-sustainable packaging platform: A tri-layered PET/PE/ALU structure. Such packages have an efficiency-centric heat sealing window of 130° C – from 120° C to about 250° C. This is because the melting point of PET and ALU are substantially higher than the sandwiched PE layer.

Correspondingly, a PET/PE structure has a tighter yet still production-friendly heat sealing window of approximately 50° C – from 120° C to about 170° C. Again, the issue here is melting point, with PET’s burn temperature far exceeding PE’s.

But when a manufacturer tries to go full-on sustainable – for example, a package comprised near-exclusively of one polyolefin (such as PE or PP), the once-open window becomes a mere sliver: about 30° C, from 140° C to 170°. These materials are, simply, far easier to burn.

Material thickness is another issue. For example, in the aforementioned tri-layer PET/PE/ALU structure, the external PET and ALU layers together are about 17 microns. For more sustainable mono-material packages, these external layers can exceed 40 microns. As a result, heat seal pressure must be significantly increased to ensure proper closure. This escalated amount of pressure can foment cracks and tears, as well as require more frequent maintenance of sealing and cutting jaws.

Without a system that is perpetually monitoring heat seal temperature and pressure, food manufacturers are left to do something they loathe: reduce line speeds and therefore output. Often, such sluggishness isn’t economically attractive or even viable, hindering the adoption of sustainable substrates in many applications.

Three conclusions are clear: Food traceability is coming, the push for more sustainable package materials is ever-growing, and sampling simply isn’t good enough anymore. Technological advancements have exponentially improved manufacturing processes up and down modern food production lines. The time has come for heat sealing inspection to join this progress-centric roster, while simultaneously aiding efforts to incorporate sustainable packaging substrates and meet looming FDA mandates.                                 

About the Author

Eran Sinbar is co-founder & CEO of Yoran Imaging (www.yoran-imaging.com), which utilizes cutting-edge thermal imaging technology to revolutionize the filling & heat-sealing process on packaging lines. Drawing upon more than two decades of thermal imaging inspection experience, the company’s solutions provide non-invasive, 100% in-line inspection combined with production-optimizing data collection and analysis.

References

1 https://www.fda.gov/food/food-safety-modernization-act-fsma/food-traceability-list

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