It's Prime Time to Invest in Automated Inspection for Meat and Poultry Processing
The global meat processing market was estimated at USD 1,205 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow over 7% annually to over USD 1,749 billion by 2027.[i] Meat processing is a highly regulated industry that requires compliance with a range of rules ranging from proper treatment of animals at the farm level to how meat is graded and packaged (proper sealing, labeling, and temperature for storage). Meat processors aim to produce high-quality products to protect and enhance their brands while maintaining efficiency and worker safety.
Given the need to support this market growth and keeping in mind the current macro challenges of record high feed costs, labor shortages, high-interest rates, supply chain logistics, and a shifting of consumer eating habits, many meat processing companies are re-examining how to make their current operations more efficient rather than investing large sums of capital into new facilities (and the requisite need for labor once operational).[ii]
One way of improving efficiency and overall product quality is through automated inspection. Countless opportunities exist within the meat processing chain, whether it’s for large cuts of meat or poultry or packaged, pre-cooked or sliced deli products.
Let’s look at a few examples of typical meat or poultry processing applications where automated inspection can be beneficial.
Grading Cuts of Beef or Pork
Quality inspectors evaluate the color, fat content, and general appearance of standard cuts of meat, such as steaks, chops, or whole roasts. Quality standards are high, and the quality management team is concerned with low-quality products and the ramifications that come with them: fines, buy-backs or loss of contract, and brand reputation.
Traditionally, these products are manually inspected and require several inspectors who are under pressure to quickly make decisions that would pass or fail a cut of meat on a moving line. However, several factors create challenges to this process. Labor shortages mean processing plants cannot find enough people to fill these jobs. Because there are fewer people performing inspections, not all pieces of meat get the same level of inspection attention, which means poor-quality products can slip through and create issues downstream.
Additionally, inspection tasks are mundane and repetitive, which detracts from the appeal of the job. It is natural to have high turnover for these types of jobs, which puts more burden on the quality management team to spend extra time training new inspectors. It is a well-known fact that when people perform these types of tasks, their attention wanders, and their judgment can degrade over time and become inconsistent. Not to mention that different people see the same thing in different ways, so due to inherent subjectivity, quality assessments can be inconsistent.
Automated inspection can alleviate many of these concerns. Machine vision solutions, such as Cognex vision systems and AI-based technology, can ensure that only those cuts of meat that meet certain criteria pass through the system onto the next process. These systems can be trained to identify the proper color as well as the proper meat-to-fat ratio (CL Lean). It can even identify and classify various cuts of meat for automated sortation and route them for proper packaging and labeling. 3D vision solutions can ensure the proper thickness of meat cuts to ensure they are graded correctly.
Volumizing Meat and Poultry Products
Pre-cooked meat and poultry products are packaged in bags to serve as a convenient way for consumers to quickly reheat part of their meal. Before cooking, the meat and poultry products, such as nuggets, patties, breasts, strips, and tenders, are cut and portioned. Since these products are often cooked in large batches for a prescribed timeframe, all pieces must be uniform in size to ensure even cooking. Larger than normal pieces take longer to cook and are subject to undercooking, and smaller than average pieces overcook, which affects the taste and quality of the product. In either case, these anomalies can create customer dissatisfaction or even a food safety issue, resulting in refunds or, even worse, a recall due to the health risks of eating undercooked meat.
Historically, ensuring the portions are uniform has been a manual process, with inspectors sorting through these products as they roll down the manufacturing line. As mentioned before, the labor shortage has created challenges where either there are not enough inspectors to catch everything or quality drops. Meat processing companies address this by either slowing down the line (which affects throughput and profitability) or having inspectors work longer hours – which leads to burnout and turnover and increased costs to train new inspectors. In either case, the subjectivity of human inspection can lead to inconsistent results and inefficiencies.
Seal and Label Inspection
Meat processing companies often package fresh cuts of meat and poultry, such as steaks, chicken thighs, or roast cuts, into plastic trays that contain absorbent pads. They are then sealed with a clear plastic film while being filled with an inert gas to delay spoilage. Labels are attached with identifying information such as the brand and the name of the product, as well as the lot number and expiration information.
Companies take great care in ensuring no foreign contaminants are on the meat or in the package, as well as making sure the absorbent pad is present before placing the meat in the container as well as verifying that the film seal is airtight to prevent spoilage and potentially harmful bacteria from entering the container. In addition, to ensure traceability and regulatory compliance, they must ensure the label is correctly applied and contains the proper information (lot code, expiration, ingredients, etc.). If any of these things are not correctly done, then they risk returns from customers or distributors, customer dissatisfaction, and potential recalls due to harmful bacteria getting into the package due to a leaky seal.
In many cases, manual labor is required to verify the presence of absorbent pads, check the package seal, and verify that the label contains the correct information. This can be time-consuming and repetitive. As volumes increase, it becomes more difficult for manual inspection to keep pace and maintain quality.
Automating the various inspection points associated with this process can add efficiency and improve the final product's quality. Machine vision systems can verify the presence or absence of the absorbent pad before placing the meat in the tray. AI-enabled technology can detect tiny compromises in the film seal, which are often very hard to detect with the human eye. OCR and OCV technology can quickly read and verify alphanumeric lot and expiration codes to provide compliance with traceability regulations.
Automated Inspection Delivers a Multitude of Benefits
Automating previously manual inspections brings several benefits. 100% of the products passing through the station are inspected, so nothing “accidentally” gets through. Using vision systems and AI-based technology to deliver consistent results free from the subjectivity and error of human inspection due to repetitive mundane tasks. These systems can process products faster and run 24/7 if needed, which would otherwise be challenging with human inspectors. Inspection results are digitally captured and aggregated for further analysis so potential problems can be identified and resolved faster - saving the costs associated with rework and the costs of poor-quality products finding their way out the door and into the market.————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————
[i] “Meat – Worldwide”, Statista.com, Accessed Feb 16, 2023.
[ii] “Meat, Poultry Industry to Face Various Challenges in 2023”, Petfoodprocessing.net, December 30, 2022.