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Can Meat Producers Enhance Food Safety with Automation?

Kevin Lobo, FB Tech Review | Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Automation can help address the labor shortage crisis, but most significantly, improve the quality of food.

FREMONT, CA: As Coronavirus threatens to infiltrate meat processing plants and slaughterhouses, connecting several confirmed cases to meat packing plants, factory floors have become the breeding ground for infectious diseases. Since the onset of the pandemic, many plants have been shut down temporarily to help mitigate the outbreak's propagation, delaying activities for weeks.

Feeding people will be one of the major obstacles in the years to come when businesses cannot provide the workforce needed to prepare food. Like most other businesses, food industries are searching f

or opportunities to increase efficiency, and losing food quality at a reduced cost is not a choice. Automation can help address the labor shortage crisis, but most significantly, improve the quality of food.

Labor shortages have hindered the meat industry for a long time, even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Manufacturers cannot recruit and retain skilled workers to meet the unceasing pressures to increas

e productivity, lower costs and boost revenue. With the abrupt Covid-19 pandemic, the labor deficit widened as thousands of people become sick with the virus. Meat sector employees face some of the fastest-growing rates of Covid-19, with a gradual increase in reported cases at meatpacking plants, food processing facilities, and farms. Almost all meatpacking plants have now been reopened, but outbreaks in processing facilities continue to grow.

Why do Food Producers Struggle with Automation?

Historically, robotic automation has been relatively sluggish in the food industry, mainly due to product heterogeneity. Food products, particularly raw meat, appear to be irregular in shape, slimy, or slippery and fragile, making it difficult for robots to pick up. Add a need for tempo, and this mission is almost impossible. Robots are good at repeating the same thing over and over again. When implemented with products in varying sizes, forms, or configurations, robots reveal their vulnerability. Previous automation systems have been unable to manage raw, sensitive, and varying food items and, as a result, food processors have been inefficient in automating food.

Food protection has already been at the top of the food producers' agenda, making the pandemic more complicated. But food workers can quickly spread pathogens with their hands, even when they wear gloves. Even more challenging, the shoulder-to-shoulder nature of work renders cross-contamination more likely to happen as workers process food.

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