Food safety techs

High-Tech Tools for Food Safety

Feb. 5, 2020
Here’s a quick look at three critical parameters for safe, efficient food processing.

About 48 million people get sick from eating toxic and tainted food each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Researchers have identified more than 250 foodborne diseases, many of which are caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites. To lower the risks of foodborne illness and improve shelf life, food processors and manufacturers pay close attention to safety. Here are three ways food companies are enlisting technology in that worthwhile and often unsung effort.

Now, the industry’s concern for safety isn’t entirely altruistic. Food processors and the farmers and ranchers who raise the food are well aware of the financial and public-relations cost of food recalls, as well as the fear and anxiety they cause consumers. With the growth of automated processing and packaging equipment, together with smart technology, businesses can more easily and efficiently manage food safety and meet quality standards. This saves them time and money while maintaining their brand image (with the added bonus of feeding the world).

Sterile is Safer

Harmful levels of bacteria, such as salmonella, are a common cause of foodborne illnesses, according to the Food and Drug Administration. They are also fast-acting, going from benign to deadly very quickly. Salmonella, for example,  takes less than five hours to reach harmful levels at room temperature. To avoid this, it needs to be refrigerated to slow rapid production, or else killed outright with a germicide or some other method of sterilization. But the food industry must be careful not to ruin the food’s healthy qualities or good taste when striving for safety.

To remove most of microorganisms on food, many manufacturers can use technology such as high-pressure processing (HPP). During HPP, packaged food is subjected to high pressures, killing any residual bacteria and reducing the chance of out-of-control bacterial growth. As a result, food lasts longer and meets food safety standards without adding preservatives or affecting flavor.

According to Research Report Insights, the HPP equipment market has a projected compound annual growth rate of 12.3% during the years stretching from 2016 to 2026. Smaller manufacturers who don’t want to invest in an HPP overhaul can rent third-party equipment from contractors. On the other hand, large companies can advance their own HPP processes via automation.

Protective Packaging

For many years, food businesses have relied on vacuum packing to remove oxygen and prevent the growth of aerobic microorganisms. Effective though this process may be, packaging can sometimes be the source of the contamination. For example, faulty packaging can contaminate an entire batch of food and, if the labelling is damaged, it makes the product difficult to track.

One way food and beverage companies are tackling food quality and packaging issues is by automating visual inspections. Machine vision lets products get checked quickly, consistently and accurately to ensure they look right correct (no bubbles, discoloration or torn packaging) . One machine vision example is Acquire Automation’s Prism machine. It can scan and reject faulty packaging, ensuring each product meets specifications. Manufacturers can monitor the number of defective items so they can address quality issues before production is stopped or items are recalled, without damaging their company image and finances.

Dodging Downtime

Unplanned downtime is a major disruption for any business, but perhaps more so for food businesses that contend with raw materials continually losing freshness (even if frozen). If an assembly breaks, refrigerators may stop working and ovens may switch off, spoiling food. Ingredients may also expire and be rendered useless for their desired purpose if they cannot be added into the process when planned. And the lack of records can mean that food is unsellable because the business cannot trace it through the supply chain. All of these factors can have a huge effect on profits and can damage relationships with customers if orders are not delivered on time.

Proactive, predictive maintenance is a crucial way to lower the risk of unplanned downtime. By monitoring machinery performance on their lines, food companies can predict when a part is going to fail and order a replacement.

Despite all this great technology, 48 million people still suffer from foodborne illnesses a year. Food manufacturers need to update and adapt their processes, as well as develop new ones, to improve safety. It’s a win-win for customers and businesses alike.

Mark Howard is U.S. country manager at EU Automation.

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