The pandemic has changed the way Australians eat and shop for fresh produce, with significant changes in online shopping habits.
Consumers are increasingly buying their groceries online and fruit and vegetables have seen a significant shift to pre-packed produce since the beginning of the pandemic, now representing more than half (53 per cent) of produce sales in major supermarket, according to Nielson figures.
In response to this shift food retailing and distribution has had to evolve rapidly.
Growers and fresh produce companies are pursuing strategic partnerships in order to innovate their packaging and inspection processes and ensure the quality and safety of their products.
As a food processing industry supplier, Heat and Control understands the importance of inspection equipment for the fresh produce industry.
Heat and Control’s packaging and inspection systems are designed to meet food industry safety standards and as the complexity of these lines increases, so does the technology needed to keep produce safe.
Having a metal detector, checkweigher and sometimes even an X-ray machine at the end of the production line is allowing Australian growers and fresh produce companies to easily comply with global safety standards and meet the demands of quality and safety conscious retailers and consumers.
Protect your customers and your brand
“If the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that many things are out of our control. However, something that is in our control, is how we protect our brand and our customers,” said Phil Garro, senior sales executive of packaging and inspection systems at Heat and Control.
Inspection equipment plays a crucial role in preventing product recall.
“One safety recall is enough to ruin years spent establishing a good reputation. The costs associated with a product recall are much more than just loss, return or exchange of tainted produce. It can mean loss of brand rapport and customer loyalty too,” said Garro.
“By choosing the right inspection systems you give yourself peace of mind. This equipment ensures that you have done everything possible to prevent a foreign material from making its way into your product and gives you certainty that your product is safe.”
While accidental contamination is always a concern, Australian fresh produce suppliers are unfortunately no stranger to incidents of intentional contamination. It is these Incidents that highlight the crucial role of inspection technology in protecting brands and ensuring food safety.
Inspection process explained
Developing and maintaining an effective, verifiable inspection process is no longer an option for processors. Innovative technology is available that can not only detect foreign objects but will operate simply, efficiently and at high speed while at the same time allowing for the collection and retention of production run data.
The primary purpose of metal detection is to detect for metal contamination. This part of the inspection process can occur at several points throughout the production line.
“Think of it in terms of process, packaging and the product,” said Garro.
The metal can come from sources like contact parts in machinery or cutting knives that break during processing.
“Metal detectors perform differently depending on their application. Choosing the right metal detector is important and should be based on the type of produce you intend to run,” said Garro.
“If it contains a high level of moisture, temperature, or high levels of salts, it will require multiple frequencies to reduce/eliminate the product affect it generates.”
Most metal detectors are only able to generate and inspect with one frequency at a time, which is not sufficient when the objective is to detect the smallest metal defect.
“There are several brands of metal detectors on the market that claim they can detect multiple frequencies, but not at the same time,” he said.
“However, cutting edge technology has seen the invention of a multi-spectrum system. This new generation of metal detector can eliminate false rejects without reducing sensitivity. Using proprietary multi-spectrum technology, it is able to consistently detect smaller metal particles in difficult products like wet spinach.”
While metal detection in food processing is primarily about quality control and consumer protection, it also protects other machinery in the production line because even the smallest metal particle can lead to machinery malfunction, resulting in revenue decrease thanks to production downtime.
Digital sorting systems can identify and consistently remove objects based on colour, structure, shape, and size at a significantly faster rate than manual inspection.
“Processors that are grading and sorting their produce manually, appreciate the cost and inefficiency that comes with hand sorting,” said Garro.
Digital sorting systems not only find contaminants in the bulk lines such as sticks, stems, stones or even mice, but they are also used to sort by size and shape and grade by discolouration.
“A wide range of systems are available to sort specific applications and they include colour sorters, smart laser sorters and there is even a new hyperspectral technology that sorts nuts such as walnuts, almonds, pistachios and cashews,” said Garro.
With the use of these new technologies, fruit and vegetable producers can achieve consistent inspection while also saving on time and labour costs.
The primary function of a checkweigher is to monitor end weight of a packaged product. Technology used in association with check weighing allows for collection and retention of important production run data and creates a database of information.
In a perfect production world, every package would weigh the same. But weighing processes are not infallible and equipment issues, problems with base line zeroing, product or seasoning build up, or even product density causes variations.
Product characteristics, product piece weight, temperature and moisture can all affect accuracy of what is proportioned out.
Using a checkweigher allows for data informed decisions and identifies trends; periodically during production, or on a continuous live basis and companies using the “Average Weight System” (or AQS) to avoid packing over weights must use a checkweigher to comply.
Fruit and vegetables products are often vacuum sealed for freshness and package leaks can stem from a range of issues.
Choosing the right leak detection equipment is an important part of the inspection process and different methods are available.
The ‘water bath’ is a simple and popular method in which a sample package is submerged in water and if the package has leaks bubbles will become visible in the water.
Unfortunately, this method cannot reliably detect tiny leaks in packaging seals and of course any products with leaks must be thrown away.
In-line pressure testing units suitable for larger scale operations are classified as ‘gross leak detectors’ and can be used for packaged products with back or fin seals and work by testing for air in the package.
While this type of technology requires air in the package, there is equipment available that will detect leaks by creating a vacuum and then testing for air escaping from the package. When using a vacuum test the package can to be returned to the line, after a green light result.