Latest data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that more than 200 diseases are borne from contaminated foods, further demonstrating the need for food processors across the Asia Pacific region to have effective food safety inspection and quality management systems in place. However, the diverse nature of the countries in the Asia Pacific region, in terms of their economies, policy, geography and climate, presents food processors and manufacturers with a significant food safety challenge.
“The Asian food industry is developing rapidly with regard to choice and food quality, but at the same time is facing productivity, economic, efficiency and environmental pressures more than ever before as the demand for food around the world increases,” says Sean Slevin, sales director Asia (non- China) at Tomra Sorting Food.
He adds: “Asia is not a homogenised market place like that seen in the West and there are numerous challenges which food processors and manufacturers have to overcome. “The domestic supply chain often struggles to keep up with demand and is reliant on imports.
Furthermore, countries have vastly different spending powers and standards—contrast the wealth and quality standards of Japan with developing countries like Myanmar with low purchasing power, lower domestic requirements and in very early stages of food safety regulations or enforcement.”
Fragmented Supply Chain
There have been well publicised major and fatal breaches of practice, particularly in China. No type of food has been spared and the scandals have led to enormous mistrust among consumers.
Food safety is definitely among the top concerns of Chinese people. However, the vast size of the country and fragmented nature of its supply chain makes food safety regulations difficult to enforce.
“Every province is in essence governed as a separate country and although central governmental policies are in place, the provincial ‘interpretation’ often results in specific local rules and regulations being deployed, not always in the same way as they were intended to be,” says Steven Van Geel, sales director China at the company. “In addition, not every province will get the same level of financial support from the government, causing food safety inspection agencies to be battling with different means, though fighting the same issues. Policies are often in place, but enforcing and policing them is a major challenge.”
As demand for food grows and the global food supply chain features more countries from the Asia Pacific region, optical sorting will become a necessity for many producers who have previously relied upon manual sorting and inspection.
Sorting technology ensures the highest product quality and prevents defective produce and dangerous foreign material, such as glass, wood and metal, entering the food chain.
Changing To Automated Solutions
Increasingly stringent food safety regulations, product-quality needs, and time-management constraints will mean that optical and sensor-based sorting will become a necessity rather than a luxury or choice for many food producers.
Particularly in South and East Asia, processing is mainly performed manually, but Mr Slevin said automated processes are beginning to be implemented as the industry matures and companies have economies of scale.
Furthermore, consumer tastes are changing and the Asian food sector is evolving from consumption of fresh foods to processed foods presenting the perfect opportunity for processors to play a critical role in driving up food safety standards across the region.
The benefits of having efficient sorting and analysis systems in place are far-reaching. At a time when food security is critical, an effective sort will ensure the minimum amount of food is wasted whilst delivering a safe, high-quality final product to customers.
Efficient sorting and removal of foreign and defective material from production lines not only delivers extremely safe food but maximises yield for processors, increasing profitability and driving up productivity— all important elements for those developing nations.
“With all the changes, investment in sorting technology offers processors a tool to offer a consistent and reliable method of ensuring quality and safety standards are met— especially where the input levels are variable,” he says.
“With so many people and links in the chain, the risk of accidental contaminants is high, from human hairs to bacterial transfer. Fundamentally, sorting technology should be seen as a substantial marketing asset, especially when supplying internationally, and not to mention a real ally in brand protection.”
Mr Van Geel added that “guaranteed food safety means processors are protecting their brand reputation and product integrity. Delivering safe food, day in and day out, is an enormous task and one mistake can have significant cost and reputational repercussions.”
“When things go wrong, a product recall can be a nightmare scenario for a food manufacturer and in some cases, a nation, in terms of financial losses and status,” he explains.
“There is a limit to what a human can do with regards to sorting produce by hand—some defects are invisible to the human eye so this method can never be 100 percent effective. Sorting technologies have advanced rapidly to sort by shape, size, density, colour, and even biometric characteristics and food processors are now able to incorporate a combination of different solutions into their production lines to remove defects and foreign material.”
Applications For Different Requirements
It is not unusual for processors to have multiple sorting and analysis machines to ensure they are eliminating poor quality product and foreign material as much as possible. There are a variety of different sensors and sorting solutions available which go far beyond the common use of colour cameras.
Near Infra-Red spectroscopy (NIR) measures the molecular structure of a product while x-ray, laser, and fluorescent technologies measure the elemental composition. With millions of produce items passing through every hour, robust and reliable systems, which can detect and remove the smallest of contaminants to deliver consistently safe, high-quality produce, are vital in managing food safety on the production line.
In a region where there is a great deal to be done to improve food safety, the food industry would be wise to consider the huge benefits sorting technology can bring to the table in helping companies and countries comply with increasingly rigorous regulations. It is a myth that compliance hinders productivity or is counterproductive by slowing down processes and creating inefficiencies.
By improving methods and processes, getting it right first time by already implementing technology from farming level onwards during harvesting, and also applying technology at different stages of the processing, compliance will actually drive up productivity, boost the bottom line and deliver high quality food which can be transported around the world.