As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on meat producers and processors, Tyson Foods has come up with a way to alleviate some of the challenges, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal published in mid-July. According to the report, Tyson is developing an automated deboning system for processing meats that will be utilized to maintain productivity during staff shortages caused by absences due to the pandemic. The hope is that the automated deboning will be used to help butcher the nearly 40 million chickens processed each week.
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Last August, Tyson opened its 26,000-square-foot manufacturing automation center near its headquarters in Springdale, Ark., with the hope of developing robotics and automation to improve efficiency and workplace safety.
Marty Linn, the director of the new center, who has three decades of experience at General Motors Co., noted at the time that this was important for the future of the company, though the idea of something like the coronavirus obviously was not even in the thought process behind it. “We’ve got to get out in front of this,” he said. “We’re not going to outsource these tasks. We’re going to produce them here in this country, so automation is a key strategy for us going forward.”
Dean Banks, Tyson’s president, told the WSJ that training robots to cut and sort meat is a massive operational challenge due to the soft material and variability among meats, as well as the fact that operations are in an environment with low temperatures and blood splatter. Still, efforts to utilize these “robot butchers” have sped up, and Noel White, Tyson’s chief executive, told the paper that the automation program is even more vital as the pandemic continues.
Tyson technicians are currently modifying the machines to identify and quickly adjust to variations in the coloration and shape of meat. Reportedly, the company has designed a water-jet cutting system that can carve chicken breasts more precisely than humans can.
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Katie Heil, a certified food safety professional at StateFoodSafety, a food safety training and certification organization, says robots have a lot of potential to alleviate labor shortages in the food manufacturing industry—including at meatpacking plants like Tyson Foods—and can reduce labor costs and improve efficiency for all food businesses, not just manufacturers.
“But, in order to be safe, food robots must be programmed correctly to avoid cross-contamination and cross-contact,” she tells Food Quality & Safety. “Like any other piece of equipment, robots must also be kept clean and sanitized. For instance, the FDA Food Code recommends cleaning and sanitizing a knife that’s had four hours of continuous use. This guideline would also apply to a robot butcher that’s been operating for four hours.”
In addition, she says, any part of the robot that comes into contact with food needs to be made of food-safe materials, and the robots need to be kept in good repair so that nothing breaks off and becomes a physical hazard. “Using robots could reduce the chance of human error, as well as the risk that sick food workers might contaminate food, which could potentially lead to fewer foodborne illness outbreaks,” Heil adds. “But they can’t operate completely alone; they still need a live person to make sure they’re operating correctly and staying clean.”
A spokesperson for Tyson declined to comment.