Sustainability is without doubt one of the, if not the most, critical aspects concerning food producers in the UK today. Depending on one’s role in the food production chain from farmer to processor to shop to consumer the actual aspect of interest in sustainability will vary.
However, all aspects of sustainability are critical if we are to continue to enjoy a supply of high quality, affordable food into the future. Within the Jenton Group of companies, the area that concerns us, and hence the area which we believe that we can affect, is the reduction of food waste primarily in the food processing industry, but to a lesser extent in the retail sector as well.
WRAP, in their 2015 report “Reducing Food Waste by Extending Product Shelf Life, determined that by extending the use by date by just one day up to £600 million could be saved each year. JenACT, a subsidiary of Jenton International, working in partnership with Marine Products (Scotland) Ltd have developed a system for extending the shelf life of salmon fillets by exposing them to ultra violet light. The team developed a suitable UVC conveyor and conducted several rounds of microbiological testing together with shelf-life testing. The result was that it could be clearly demonstrated that the shelf-life of the salmon fillets increased from 10 to 20 days – far more than the one day discussed in the WRAP report. Whilst the JenACT approach to reduce, or preferably, remove the contamination is an excellent one, it is still possible that food produce may contain organisms, such as bacteria or spores on fruit, that will increase the possibility of an early trip to landfill – but more about that later.
Another area that WRAP has investigated is the effect of leaking packs on the waste associated with processed food. In the report “Seal Integrity and the Impact on Food Waste”, they estimate that up to 480,000 tonnes of food is wasted in the UK each year because of poor seals. Although up to 24% of all packs are “at risk of failure” only 1% were detected in the factory using conventional means. Not only is this food wasted, but its carbon footprint is made worse by having to be then transported for disposal.
A further area, and possibly even more infuriating, is food returned to the processor because the labelling is missing or incorrect labelling. Typical errors include incorrect “use-by” dates or missing allergen information. These can be caused by operator error or printer faults during production and confine otherwise perfectly good food to waste and hence a high carbon footprint for no gain.
These three examples have many things in common. First, they all create waste from otherwise perfectly good food. Secondly, there are techniques currently being utilised to try and either nullify the effect or test for it in the high-care food production environment (finding the fault in high care means that the problem can be solved, usually without destroying the food, and in any event with the minimum carbon footprint). Thirdly, there is one additional technology which when combined with existing methods and technologies can radically improve the detection of, for example, mould spores, poor seals and incorrect labelling. That technology is, of course, machine vision.
A perfect example is the latest seal tester from Jenton Ariana. Until now all Jenton Ariana seal testers have tested thermoformed and top sealed trays using a proprietary online 100% pressure based technology. In short, a defined pressure is applied to all packs and the deformation measured. By comparing this deformation signature to that of a known good pack a leaking pack can be detected and rejected whilst still in high care all without effecting line speed. Where the technology often fails however is spotting a pack that it currently sound, but one that is likely to leak. That’s where vision comes in – literally to see food trapped in the seal itself. This is especially common where the food is automatically loaded into the thermoformed packs or trays and a trace of food such as spaghetti becomes caught in the seal. Although it probably will not effect the seal integrity at that instant, once it starts to dry it shrinks and the pack is compromised.
The example of the bacteria & spores on fruit is also an excellent example of combining technologies. Exposure to one frequency of UV light will render the bacteria harmless, whereas exposure to a differing frequency of UV light will cause the spores to fluoresce light in the visible spectrum which can be detected using machine vision systems.
By using machine vision in combination with other techniques it is possible to create extremely robust and economic systems to significantly reduce food waste. Up until recently, the limiting factors were often the hardware cost and processing power required to run complex vision software. However modern industrial computers combined with ultra-efficient algorithms, like those developed by UK machine vision leader Dimaco, are making machine vision a viable technology. Like so many things in life, combining vision with more mature technologies results in solutions that are far greater than the sum of their parts.