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Food safety under threat

food safetyAustralia and New Zealand have a long-held reputation for supplying superior, clean, natural and exceptionally safe edible products.

First class R&D facilities, a thriving agriculture sector and high-quality raw materials have helped propel innovation and continual improvements in food and beverage processing.

This has delivered significant economic benefits, with the food and beverage sector a key contributor to the region’s export earnings. Food processing is Australia’s largest manufacturing industry, while in New Zealand, the sector employs nearly one in five of the country’s workforce.

However, the start of 2018 has seen a number of concerning food safety incidents in ANZ. Cadbury’s Caramilk issued a recall in February after some blocks were found to contain plastic. Then, just a few weeks later, much worse was to follow, as a deadly outbreak of listeria linked to the consumption of contaminated rockmelons claimed the lives of four people. This was followed by another tragic incident in early May, with Hepatitis A outbreaks in New South Wales and South Australia linked to a frozen pomegranate product.

This will doubtless put increasing pressure on food safety requirements for growers and manufacturers to maintain their reputation as strong, safe and stable food operations. To help prevent further incidents in future, an opportunity now exists to implement or extend the use of technology to support effective food safety practices.

Automation offers not only the potential to improve efficiency, and to significantly reduce the time tasks take to complete, but also to provide greater levels of quality control. Wastage of produce and packaging would also be dramatically reduced, and the chance for contamination from the manual handing of produce or packaging is removed.

Historically, Australian agriculture has recognised for embracing technology – including the Internet of Things, augmented reality, and robotics– but food and beverage manufacturing has been slower to adapt. Technology like cobots (collaborative robots), which are designed to operate alongside humans in the workplace as they are smaller, more adaptable and easier to deploy than traditional robotics, offer a real opportunity for the sector to increase quality control and minimise risks, by performing repetitive tasks safely and flexibly.

This can help free up resources, making smaller food manufacturers more competitive, while safeguarding Australia and New Zealand’s reputation for product excellence that has won admirers the world over.

Cobots can be used for sorting, filling, capping, sterilising, picking and packing food and beverage items more quickly and effectively than humans, significantly reducing the chance of consumers contracting food-borne illnesses as a consequence of contamination.

They do not carry pathogens as cobots do not have skin, hair, fingernails, blood, saliva or other bodily fluids that can get into the production line and cause contamination, which can lead to severe reputational harm and costly product recalls.

With consumer demand for faster delivery of products putting increasing pressure on supply chain management and forcing suppliers to get their products to market more quickly, suppliers can be tempted to cut corners when it comes to processes, and pressure can also be placed upon delivery drivers to work long hours to get products to market on time.

By taking advantage of automation technologies to aid with various stages of the sorting, packaging and distribution process, constraints and time stress can be alleviated, as tasks are completed faster and to a higher standard than would otherwise be possible solely with the use of traditional employees.

While many multinational food and beverage companies like Coca-Cola have engaged in high-profile upgrades to ANZ manufacturing facilities to increase automation, smaller producers in the region have been slower to take advantage of the available technology.

Too often, automation is associated with high-costs, difficult installations and high-levels of technical skill, but the reality is that solutions like cobots or AI-powered platforms make automation far cheaper and more accessible than traditional industrial robots or complicated enterprise software. Many manufacturers would be surprised to learn that the average payback period for technology like cobots is just six months in ANZ.

Meanwhile, staff welfare would improve as they can be removed from potentially dangerous or unpleasant work environments. Instead, technology can perform the repetitive, monotonous and unpleasant tasks like sorting and packing frozen vegetables in cold storage units. Technology, unlike people, can also function at all times of the day or night for long hours without a degradation in performance, improving quality control, food safety and hygiene.

Maintaining a consistently high standard in the production of food and beverages is essential, not just in terms of attracting and retaining customers, but also for public healthy and safety. By using technology like cobots, Australian and New Zealand producers can more easily meet the most stringent of requirements around manufacturing, processing and distribution, ensuring the sector’s continued success and global reputation.

Shermine Gotfredsen is the General Manager from Universal Robotos.

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