Welcome to the fast-paced world of food processing, a complex arena in which players must embrace strategic thinking to stay relevant and competitive in a demanding global marketplace. In this evolving world, several food-processing engineers are leading the way.
“I want the U. S. food industry to continue to be a model for the world relative to efficiency and product quality and safety,” says Craig Wyvill, chief of the Food Processing Technology Division (FPTD) at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Research Institute in Atlanta.
Wyvill and colleagues are working on technologies designed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of food processing operations, with special emphasis on poultry applications. So far, they’ve developed a range of continuous screening systems for everything from defective poultry carcasses to cooked sausage patties. These accomplishments evolved from their pioneering development of continuous inline screening and monitoring systems for various food processing applications using computer vision technology.
The researchers are also involved in a range of technology development areas, including robotics, information systems, bioprocessing, advanced separation systems, and sensor systems. “We are becoming much more involved in finding ways to help plants introduce more dynamic controls over processing operations,” Wyvill says. “To that end, we are turning more and more to computer simulation and modeling.”
But models are of limited value if you can’t measure dynamics, he says. “We see a growing need for more and better sensors with in-line continuous screening capabilities to pinpoint changes in critical parameters,” Wyvill says. “All foods pose challenges in measuring quality parameters, whether they be a natural product like fresh meat or a manufactured item, such as a sesame seed hamburger bun.”
Advanced sensor concepts that go beyond computer vision are already surfacing in processing operations, although many screening concepts remain confined to laboratory settings rather than on-line. This is beginning to change, Wyvill says. “We are starting to see online screening systems that can check product thermal profiles, fat content, and moisture content. We are also seeing breakthroughs that will eventually enable us to screen online for microbial contamination and chemical composition as product is being produced.”
Buns in the Oven
As leader for the FPTD Sensor and Information Technology Group, Doug Britton, PhD, is overseeing the development of a system that controls a high-volume bun oven based on the color of the product. The technology uses an imaging system that provides automatic feedback to the oven controls to ensure homogenous products, top to bottom, every time. The system will be field tested in a bakery by mid-July, Dr. Britton says.
Researchers are also working on methods that estimate the internal temperature of formed and cooked products. “The goal is to help producers in high-volume cooking operations ensure that all of their production is reaching the fully cooked internal temperatures necessary to kill any pathogenic bacteria,” Dr. Britton says.
An infrared camera is used to measure the surface temperature while a 3-D imaging system generates the product’s shape profile. Advanced thermal modeling techniques allow producers to establish an estimate of the internal temperature using these sensor inputs.
Dr. Britton’s group is exploring the use of multi-spectral, fluorescence, X-ray, three-dimensional, and conventional imaging to address a wide variety of food processing problems. These include detecting leaks in over-wrap packaging, detecting bone fragments in meat, performing portion analysis of whole muscle products, detecting foreign materials in the product stream, generating position and orientation inputs for robotic manipulators, and providing meaningful feedback to both machinery and human operators on the processing floor.
Nonthermal processing is a noteworthy approach to attaining minimally processed foods of very good quality, says Gustavo Barbosa-Cánovas, PhD, director of the Center for Nonthermal Processing of Food at Washington State University (Pullman, Wash.).