(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the December/January 2018 issue.)
One could argue that automation is partly responsible for the current record levels of food and beverage recalls. Production efficiencies gained through things like factory farming also expose food stock to more pathogen contamination. The speed of automated packaging lines has also driven a spike in product mislabeling. And advanced manufacturing equipment has led to more foreign materials like metals and plastics being found in prepared foods.
Yet automation and other technologies are arguably the best bet for solving the recall epidemic as well. While the food and beverage industry has traditionally lagged behind in the adoption of technology, food processors are beginning to invest in next-generation systems to better meet the product safety requirements of consumers and government regulators. The cost of recalling a product—not to mention the damage to brand reputation—trumps the capital investment costs of modernization these days.
Consider the issue of contamination, which has been a major driver of food recalls. Q2 2017 saw a disturbing rise in Class I recalls in particular, which pose the highest risk of serious adverse consequences or death according to the FDA. FDA Class I food recalled units were up 340 percent in Q2, with the top cause being bacterial contamination from Salmonella. Similarly, USDA Class I food recalls were up 86 percent, driven primarily by undeclared allergens such as milk.
It’s not that food contamination is spiraling out of control. Rather, detection methods are improving, enabling government regulators to pull back food that would have normally slipped through. Advancements in contamination testing have been driven by both government and private initiatives as the requirements of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) take hold. As FSMA is implemented, regulators are increasingly employing new versions of whole genome sequencing (WGS) testing to better detect bacterial contamination.
WGS is a highly accurate method of detecting contaminants by identifying their DNA. New, fast-acting versions of the test enable inspectors to spot tainted food much sooner than previous methods. Rather than relying on testing as a reactive, end-of-line step, food processors need to shift to a proactive strategy, integrating these new fast-acting testing technologies into their automated processes so that they can identify food contaminants earlier in a wider range of products. It can also help curb the “multiplier effect,” where the supplier of a single ingredient affects dozens or even hundreds of companies down the line.
Safe Food Requires a Clean Robot
Robotics will be essential in driving down food recalls as well. Orders for robots increased 32 percent in the food and beverage industry in 2016, according the Robotic Industry Association, driven largely by the need to improve food handling safety. Production workers can get sick, don’t adhere to cleanliness standards, or can be careless when it comes to cross-contamination with other foods. A new generation of sterile robots with visual tracking capabilities are providing much more consistent sanitization at higher temperatures than humans can deliver. Robots are even making inroads in traditionally-manual meat processing environments, where advances in machine vision are enabling more sanitized and precise butchering, processing, and packaging.
The Internet of Things (IoT) will also play a role in safer food production and transportation. Innovations in sensors and monitoring systems are enabling food processors to distribute networked intelligence across operations. They can closely monitor food safety data points from farm to table to identify or even prevent problems. Temperature tracking sensors can ensure proper food temperature and humidity levels are being maintained from the supply chain to production to delivery. They also make it easier for food processors to comply with FSMA temperature control and tracking requirements. IoT-connected sensors and testing equipment can confirm food quality as it leaves the facility. Important data such as storage temperature can be monitored in real time from anywhere, enabling processors to address problems before they become food safety risks. Fresh-cut processors can monitor safe wash line metrics like heat and cleaner levels. And food processors can use IoT to monitor everything from the health of livestock to bacteria in products, to name just a few applications.