Sensor technology could prevent foreign material contamination in processing plants

Contamination is detected from a distance away from the assembly line, avoiding extra cleaning and processes

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A Calgary-based start-up is about to start trials on an innovation for food processing facilities it says can prevent foreign material contamination of food products.

E.O.I Technologies is preparing to launch a pilot project with a major poultry processor in the southern United States that focuses on large-scale, remote monitoring and predictive analytics of conveyor systems.

Why it matters: Contamination of food during processing from foreign materials like plastic or metal is a leading reason for costly food recalls that impact consumer confidence in the food supply.

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“Foreign material contamination is a big problem in the industry and much of it comes from conveyors where metal or plastic shavings can end up in the food,” explains E.O.I founder and CEO Alex Sulkin.

A quick look at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) online food recall list shows “possible foreign matter contamination” as a not infrequent reason for food recalls. For example, Tyson Foods, the world’s second largest chicken, beef and pork processor, recalled approximately 12 million pounds of chicken in 2019 for exactly this reason.

According to Sulkin, his company’s technology monitors modular conveyor systems in food processing facilities using laser to detect damage or defects.

“We can detect broken, bent or deformed wires which could be a sign of uneven tension or damage and result in contamination of the food,” he says. “We also measure the dynamics of the conveyor, the alignment and the movement, the edges, and whether the sprockets are aligned or not.”

Currently, most food processing companies try to detect foreign material by scanning food with metal detectors, x-ray machines or even hyperspectral imaging cameras. If foreign matter is discovered, companies shut down lines, clean extensively and dispose potentially affected food, all of which results in losses and added costs.

The E.O.I. sensor technology is installed in the ceiling with a line of sight to the conveyors to constantly gather data, which is then sent to the cloud and displayed on a user dashboard. Low cost, it never touches food or comes near the processing equipment.

“We can pinpoint specific locations on the conveyor that could be a problem and give predictive analytics to potential foreign contamination events that are about to happen,” Sulkin says. “We can prevent (contamination) instead of detect, that’s the big difference.”

Sulkin’s innovation was originally destined for industrial applications, like detecting vibrations and mechanical stress on aging infrastructure to predict potential failures. But that all changed when E.O.I was accepted into the inaugural cohort of the Techstars Heritage Group Accelerator last fall.

One of the accelerator’s mentors introduced Sulkin to a large U.S. poultry processor, which ultimately led to the pilot that will hopefully get underway in the next several months.

“As a company, we were looking for an application where we can measure something that isn’t already being done – we didn’t just want to build a better mousetrap,” Sulkin says.

Because E.O.I’s technology gathers and analyzes performance data constantly, it could also allow plants to increase line speeds and ramp up production without compromising food safety or quality – especially important now as many meat plants face production limitations due to coronavirus restrictions, he adds.

The need for innovation of all kind in Canada’s food processing sector has been identified as a priority by the federal government. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada has provided two rounds of funding to the national food processing innovation research cluster headed by Canadian Food Innovators (CFI).

And last year, the federal government announced funding to support the establishment of a new Canadian Food Innovators Network, although this has currently been paused as a result of the pandemic.

“Food safety is paramount for any company involved in the food value chain, and innovation in food safety is central in ensuring success in the food value chain at all levels,” says CFI Chair Joe Lake, Director of Innovation & Research at McCain Foods Limited. “It’s imperative that new technologies and ideas constantly be explored and developed to solve both traditional food safety challenges, as well as new and emerging areas.”

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