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Food inspection technology

Ruth Wright and Jack Severs of Gill, Jennings and Every investigate the rise of in-line food inspection technologies to reduce contamination risks and avoid product recalls and brand damage.

Given the direct health and safety implications, quality control in the food and drink industry is perhaps of greater significance than in any other industry. However, despite this importance, data suggests that the number of food and drink product recalls is on the rise. 

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) identified an annual increase of almost 25% in the total number of food safety incidents reported to them in 2016/17 compared to 2015/16[1]. The FSA also reported a similar increase in the number of food product recalls, with the figure more than doubling from the relatively stable rate seen in 2013 and 2014[2]

For food and drink manufacturers, the direct cost of having to recall a product is significant. For example, Swancote Foods estimated a food recall relating to metal contamination in ready meal potato salads cost the company £600,000, despite the incident being contained with the UK. For multinational companies the costs can rise sharply.  US Food Safety Magazine estimates the average cost to a US food company as $10m in direct costs.

According to a report[3] by the financial services firm Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS), the food and drink industry is second only to the automotive industry in terms of money lost through product recalls. The report places the figure at over $2bn in insurance costs over the past five years. Various reasons are cited for the upturn in food product recalls, including tougher regulation, the increasing dominance of large multi-national corporations, increasingly complex global supply chains, the impact of competition and economic pressures on R&D and even the growth of social media.

A report[4] from the insurance broker Lockton indicated that many food industry executives believe that cost-cutting in the production process was to blame for the increase in number of recalls. In particular, the report suggests that increased pricing pressures, driven further by inflation and the impact of Brexit, are causing food and drink manufacturers to neglect spending on the required research and development to ensure tougher standards are met.

Whatever the specific reasons for the rise in product recalls, the cost to food and drink manufacturers is clear. However, the fallout from such an event extends far beyond the direct operational costs associated with managing the incident, such as notification of regulatory bodies and consumers, product retrieval, storage and destruction of the unsalable product.

The true cost of a product recall affects a company’s market value with brand damage an increasingly important factor. The damage to a company’s brand is now amplified by the use of social media in which reports of faulty products are quickly spread. The mainstream media is increasingly influenced by this, as evidenced by the widespread reporting[5] of the ‘hummus shortage’ last year following the recall of Sabra Dipping Company hummus from supermarkets because of a possible contamination risk. The implications of the associated brand damage can reach customers, potential investors and licensees, reducing the value of intellectual property associated with the brand, such as trade marks. The effect on consumer goodwill can impact the market value of the company long after the food safety incident has been addressed.

The true cost of a product recall affects a company’s market value with brand damage an increasingly important factor.

Food inspection technologies

It is therefore more important than ever for food and drink companies to think carefully about the protocols put in place for ensuring quality control. Fortunately, the rapid pace of innovation in the field of food inspection technology is allowing food and drink manufacturers to combat this risk by installing systems on their production lines that can identify potential issues with food quality before they develop. 

Food inspection technologies allow for the real-time analysis of food products on the production line. Such non-destructive technologies overcome the disadvantages of conventional destructive testing as a greater proportion of items may be sampled without interrupting the production run or sacrificing stock to testing. Food inspection technologies include a wide range of techniques, such as X-ray inspection, optical imaging techniques, vision systems and hyperspectral imaging. The wide range of techniques being used and developed reflects the fact that identifying potential safety hazards in food is a challenging task, depending on the particular contaminant, the medium in which it is found and the presence of packaging. 

Figure 1 illustrates the number of patent applications being filed for food inspection technologies and the number of granted patents being awarded in this field. The data shows that investment in patent protection has steadily increased in both numbers of patent applications filed and the number of patents granted for food inspection technologies since 2013 (when the horsemeat scandal shook consumer confidence in many well-known food brands). This demonstrates that the pace of innovation in these technologies is growing. It appears that food and drink manufacturers are recognising the importance of investing in research into inspection systems to mitigate the increasing risk of food safety issues.

One of the increasingly common causes of food product recalls is the presence of foreign bodies. Research into recalls announced by the FSA found that the number of cases of foreign bodies in products had jumped by 350% between 2012 and 2017. Food recalls have also doubled over the past three years, with nearly a quarter caused by contamination with objects, such as glass, metal or plastic. These include recalls of SPAR’s Chicken Tikka chunks due to the presence of glass and Morrisons recalling trimmed beans due to the presence of small pieces of metal in May and April of 2017 respectively.

Figure 1 The numbers of patent applications and granted patents for
food inspection technologies 2006-2017

X-ray inspection

Such contaminants are most commonly identified by X-ray inspection systems, which rely on the differing density between the foreign body and the surrounding medium to detect contaminants on the production line. Considerable research has highlighted the potential of X-ray inspection for the grading of fruits, vegetables and grains, and detection of bones in chicken and fish. Some advanced X-ray inspection systems can simultaneously perform in-line quality checks detecting physical defects, measuring mass, counting components, identifying missing or broken products, monitoring fill levels and inspecting the seal integrity of packaging. Furthermore, the move towards a greater degree of foil and metal packaging has meant some more mature detection techniques, such as metal detection, are no longer effective, whereas X-ray inspection provides the possibility of identifying contaminants within metal packaging.

Ishida has patented a series of technological developments in the image processing of X-ray images allowing the detection of a range of foreign objects with high sensitivity. The successful detection of foreign bodies using X-ray detection relies on the appropriate selection of the required filters for the type of object and product. Ishida has patented a system[6], which automatically selects the optimum combination of filters and image processing parameters to differentiate between foreign objects and food products, allowing the detection of physical contaminants with far greater sensitivity. This allows foreign bodies having densities much closer to that of the food product to be detected, for example small pieces of bone or shell in meat and fish products. It also allows more rapid detection of foreign objects with a reduction in down time due to recalibration for different product types.

X-ray imaging is effective at detecting a range of physical contaminants but, as the report by the FSA indicates, a large proportion of identified food safety incidents are of biological origin and are, as such, not possible to identify via X-ray inspection. Chemical and biological contaminants are of great concern as their impact is difficult to detect at an early stage but can accumulate with time, meaning that issues not spotted during production can rapidly develop to hazardous levels and cause significant safety risks.

Conventional methods for detecting biological and chemical contaminants are generally performed in the laboratory meaning they are destructive and slow and therefore they are not appropriate for incorporation into the production line of a food production facility. Over the last few years, significant progress has been made in the development of technologies to detect such contaminants in real time production line inspection systems. 

Ishida’s X-ray inspection system with patented genetic algorithm technology

Over the last few years, significant progress has been made in the development of technologies to detect [biological and chemical] contaminants in real time production line inspection systems.

Hyperspectral imaging

Hyperspectral imaging is one such technique, which is seeing significant innovation in the food inspection industry. The method relies on the varying interaction of different molecules with light and therefore provides a non-destructive technique, which can in theory be implemented on the production line. Different molecules absorb and reflect different wavelengths of light such that, by illuminating a specimen and measuring and processing the reflected spectra and images, a vast amount of information about the constituent molecules can be determined[7].

The processed image information can be used to determine the presence of microorganisms, hazardous chemicals and even freshness of meat or the ripeness of fruit – in addition to identifying the physical contaminants currently identified via X-rays.

Such is the versatility of the technique that many are predicting that hyperspectral imaging will replace all existing inspection systems and will one day eventually be used by consumers themselves when purchasing food products to determine their quality. There is no doubt that the pace of innovation in this field is rapid, as demonstrated by the increasing patent applications being filed and granted for hyperspectral imaging technologies over the last ten years (Figure 2).

There are several technical problems to solve before the uptake of hyperspectral imaging becomes widespread. These issues include the amount of data processing required and acquiring the libraries of signals representative of the different molecules such that they can be reliably identified. However the possibilities provided by the technology are so great that there is a clear motivation to manufacturers to develop and protect the variant of the technology that emerges as the most commercially viable, driving the innovation illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2 The numbers of patentapplications and granted patents for
hyperspectral imaging technologies 2006-2017

Conclusions

Given the increasing standards expected of food producers and the amplification of the impact felt due to the prevalence of social media, the increasing trend in food safety incidents is unlikely to change for some time. It appears that increasingly food and drink manufacturers are recognising that investing in food inspection technology at the point of production is necessary to manage the significant risks and ensure product quality is maintained. Companies that manage to obtain strong patent protection for the next generation of food inspection systems are therefore likely to be well placed to reap the rewards of their innovation.

Ruth Wright and Jack Severs

Gill, Jennings and Every

The Broadgate Tower, 20 Primrose Street, London EC2A 2ES.

Gill Jennings & Every LLP are a specialist intellectual property law firm providing commercially focused advice on legal protection for innovations and brands to companies ranging from start-ups to multinationals. A team of patent and trade mark attorneys specialises in advising clients in the food & drink sector.

Email: ruth.wright@gje.com

Jack.Severs@gje.com

References

1. Annual Report of Food Incidents 2016/17, Food standards Agency  https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/annualreportofincidents2017.pdf

2. Review of Food Withdrawal and Recall Processes, Data Analysis of FSA Food Alerts 2013 – 2016, Analytics Unit Science, Evidence and Research Division Food Standards Agency 5th September 2017, https://www.food.gov.uk/sites/default/files/food-alerts-data-analysis_0.pdf

3. http://www.agcs.allianz.com/insights/white-papers-and-case-studies/product-recall/

4 https://www.locktoninternational.com/products/product-recall-risk-tracker

5 https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/apr/25/humour-bypass-as-houmou...

6 http://www.ishida.com/ww/en/products/documents/upload/ix-gn_eng_0520.pdf

7 Application of Hyperspectral Imaging in Food Safety Inspection and Control: A Review, Yao-Ze Feng & Da-Wen Sun http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/bfsn20



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