ForumMeet the Food Inspection Robots
Americans want the bestand we want it fast. We already enjoy
one of the safest food supplies in the world, but we want it even safer.
We're likely to get what we want, thanks in part to Agricultural
Research Service (ARS) innovations in food inspection.
Take the chicken-processing industry, for example. As America's productivity
and prosperity rose, along with the demand from health-conscious consumers
for more poultry, production lines cranked up. Now, many can run at
140 birds a minute. As a comparison, the human speed is about 35 birds
per minute. Those high speeds bring the issue of inspection effectiveness
and customer demands to the forefront. Similar issues are at work in
other food industries.
The volume and rate of food flow beg for sophisticated instrumentation
to ensure quality as American food industries struggle to compete in
a global economy while meeting ever-higher safety standards.
And ARS is happy to help, bringing food safety and quality inspections
to a new level by taking advantage of the latest technologies.
Several years ago, poultry processors and USDA's Food Safety Inspection
Service (FSIS) asked ARS to design so-called machine-vision systems
to address the issues associated with high-speed inspection. "Machine
vision" refers to robotic equipment that can "see" product
In response, ARS began working closely with FSIS to develop two machine-vision
systems for chicken inspection, which are now being shifted to private
industry for commercial development. One, developed by the ARS Instrumentation
and Sensing Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, automatically spots
birds with diseases and physical defects. The other, developed by the
ARS Poultry Processing and Meat Quality Research Unit in Athens, Georgia,
spots contamination from fecal matter and from partially digested food
from ruptured chicken crops.
Both systems can handle line speeds up to 180 birds a minute, an initial
requirement of the ARS research project. The ARS scientists knew that
if they couldn't keep up with the actual pace of industry, their work
would be useless. And the systems had to be easily adaptable to handle
other birds, such as turkeys and ducks.
The ARS Preharvest Food Safety and Enteric Disease Research Unit in
Ames, Iowa, is the third leg of the tripod that supports the ARS Food
Safety national program's machine-vision goals. That team developed
a system to detect fecal contamination on cattle carcasses and may expand
it to include swine. They have developed a fixed scanning instrument
that stands 7 feet tall and are currently working to develop portable
instruments. The stand-alone equipment is much like a metal detector
in an airport: it scans the entire body. The portable instrument would
be similar to the wands used by security personnel to spot-check a passenger.
The ARS national program Food Safety oversees the work of these three
research teams to be sure the solutions they work on are compatible,
useful, and not duplicative.
As the story on page 4 in this issue shows, the Beltsville team is
now moving toward a machine-vision system for apples, which could have
applications for all fruits and vegetables. Just as the chicken and
beef industries dealt with their own widespread news coverage of food
contamination incidents, the apple-processing industry was spurred on
by reports of Escherichia coli O157:H7 contamination of unpasteurized
apple juice and cider. In this case, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) asked for help from ARS, as FSIS had done for beef and chicken
Because machine vision can work 24 hours a day, it could potentially
be used to inspect all of America's processed foods, both domestic and
imported. It even holds promise of spotting unusual forms of contamination,
such as metal pieces, that can enter the food supply by accident or
While the three teams do basic research as well as applied, they are
all oriented toward benefitting the world outside their labs.
Despite the costs involved and human issues still to resolve, the industry
is grateful to have machine vision as a tool, especially with the blessing
of FSIS and FDA. With this new tool, producers can honestly say that
their products have been screened for safety and quality by the most
sophisticated systems science has developed to datesystems designed
to work well with and benefit from the experienced people they are an
adjunct to, not a replacement for.
The bottom line is that these systems can help make it possible, and much easier, for the industry to ensure that only the best products make it to the end of the food-processing and packing lines.
"Forum" was published in the August 2002 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.