(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the February/March 2019 issue.)
Lamb Weston, a producer of fries and frozen potato products, sells over 80 million portions of fries around the world every day—from fast-food conglomerates to the frozen food aisle of the neighborhood grocery store.
To make that happen, Lamb Weston employs over 6,000 people worldwide, with 14 manufacturing and food processing facilities in North America alone. But no matter where they’re produced or for whom, Lamb Weston prides itself on quality products and customer satisfaction. The exact specs desired by each customer vary depending on the customer type (fast-food restaurant versus hospitality industry versus consumer/grocer) as these parameters have a direct impact on details like plate presence, crispiness, and hold times. All of these characteristics are affected by solids (moisture) levels, fat content, and in the case of sweet potatoes—total sugar or surface moisture—in the potatoes as they go through the production process. Whether carving out curly fries or stamping sweet potato CrissCut fries, it’s impossible to produce a uniform, quality product in so many locations at that volume without exceptional quality control processes in place.
Gaining Quality Control
For the past 10 years, Lamb Weston has relied on near infrared (NIR) analyzers from Unity Scientific to ensure quality and consistency for its customers. To that end, for their fry production lines, there are two points in the process where Lamb Weston utilizes the Unity Scientific SpectraStar analyzers. The first location is at-line after the fryer, which allows for rapid determination of solids on the production floor. The second location is in the lab, where grab samples are taken when the product is first frozen for a final quality test before packaging and shipping. If the solids levels are too low, spoilage increases. If the solids levels are too high, crispiness suffers.
Lamb Weston offers over 90 different styles of fries, from “Steak Cut Skin On” to “Regular Cut” to “Thin Crinkle Cut” and “Shoestrings,” and each customer requires different specs for each product. “When Lamb Weston first brought us on board, it took a while to get the levels right for each of the products and to match all the specs for each one of their customers,” says Dan Evans, Unity Scientific key account manager and Lamb Weston’s primary contact at Unity. “But now that we have them identified we know the exact settings for each production line at each plant, so it’s just minor adjustments here and there.”
Historically, the testing and analysis for quality control in food processing was done manually without timely controls that fed back into the process. Since the SpectraStar analyzer solution provides accurate real-time readings in only 20-30 seconds, the plant operators now have the feedback needed to make rapid adjustments (i.e., fryer time and blancher process) and consistently produce on spec product.
Users can quickly wipe down SpectraStar and clean it after each shift, and it requires service only once a year. Calibrating can be done in-house in a matter of minutes.
Should the SpectraStar analyzer need to be serviced other than the recommended once-a-year visit from a service tech, Unity Scientific gets service personnel onsite as quickly as possible to minimize downtime for the customer. For troubleshooting the SpectraStar, Unity Scientific has also designed a “remote access mode” that allows the customer to give permission to offsite Unity service personnel to securely log in to the analyzer over the internet and check the status to see what’s happening with the unit.
“They [SpectraStar analyzers] give us the accurate real-time data we need to ensure the quality of our products,” says Thu Thuy Thomas, director technologist at the Lamb Weston R&D Innovation Center in Richland, Wash.