The arguments for adopting automated and robotic processes in the meat industry are well-rehearsed and compelling: lower labour costs, improved efficiency, and a better quality product. But while companies from Sydney to Stockholm bought into the R2-D2 revolution as far back as the 1990s, UK firms have, by and large, stuck resolutely to traditional working practices ... and, thanks to a paucity of investment, fallen further behind the competition.
The comparatively high cost of equipment set against precarious UK supermarket supply contracts, lack of research funding - which has propelled the Australian and Danish meat industries' advances - and inappropriate or inflexible robotic design for some product lines are all frequent excuses. But now there's a new incentive for meat producers to look again at Terminator technology - one which, given European and domestic government agendas, may make it harder to resist the march of the robots: food safety.
According to researcher Keld Monsted of the Danish Meat Research Institute (DMRI), slashing bug counts to meet ever tougher supermarket and EU targets is adding value to artificial intelligence.
"An example is automatic evisceration of pigs, which takes out the whole organ set and pluck in one piece without breaking the digestive channel, which means there is less contamination of the food chain. Having looked at comparative contamination levels between manual and robotic systems, there was a measurable improvement," he says.
John Howard is marketing director for the Danish Bacon and Meat Council (DBMC), which has worked with the Danish Meat Association on a £26.8M automation programme for the pig industry over the past eight years. He says a "hands-off" approach to a traditionally very hands-on industry has raised hygiene without compromising throughput. "After processing each pig, the robots' tools are retracted into a cleaning cabinet where they are cold-warm-cold rinsed and disinfected ... this ensures the tools are thoroughly sterilised and the possibility of cross carcass contamination eliminated," he says.
"In the past, investment criteria for robot cells for picking, packing and palletising have tended to focus on labour reduction," adds Nick Walsh, segment manager for food with ABB Robotics in Milton Keynes, one of the few companies to have developed a robotics solution specifically for the food industry. "Other factors are now increasing in importance. The design of easy-to-use hygienic picking and packing cells, facilitated by the design of high-speed wash-down robots with integrated vision systems ... has focused attention on the benefits of higher outputs and consistent quality and hygiene."
While academic research is patchy, Wim de Koning, a biochemist with Dutch robotics firm MPS, claims that robotic systems in primary processing can reduce microbial counts by up to 75%. He also believes that automation can extend shelf-life by as much as 20 days.
"What was wanted two years ago was labour saving, but now it's contamination reduction," he says. "If you do not get bugs on a carcass, you do not need to remove them later on in the process."
He believes there is widespread under-reporting of microbiological test results. "I go into plants in the EU where I do my measurements and 25% of the carcases are contaminated - nobody wants to tell that," he says.
But as Europe moves closer to the Americans' zero tolerance of key pathogens, such as Listeria - which is stubbornly climbing in the UK - they may not have a choice. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is already encouraging meat processors to enter microbiological test results on a national database - a voluntary big bug league table - so any technology that helps industry clean up its act has got to be good news for processors, both in terms of compliance and commercial advantage.
Hygiene screw is tightening
Maurice McCartney, director of the British Meat Processors' Association (BMPA), admits that, when it comes to hygiene the "screw is being tightened", but the harsh reality is that the UK meat industry's relatively small scale makes half a million pound robotic line investments hard to justify.
Compared to the rest of Europe "we're playing catch-up," he says, but if automation on the scale employed by the Danes, Dutch and New Zealanders is out of the question, there are other affordable alternatives to "Robochop" when it comes to improving hygiene.
Steve James, director of the Food Refrigeration and Process Engineering Research Centre (FRPERC) is, in any case, sceptical that robots can single handedly defeat disease. His research team has been funded by the Food Standards Agency to look instead at steam sterilising poultry, beef, pig and sheep meat, using an atmospheric system to achieve rapid rises in temperature without "cooking" the product.
"We are getting four log [10,000-fold] reductions [in contamination] - or, in the way industry likes to talk about it, we have killed 99.9% of the bugs. If you can achieve a 102 reduction in campylobacter in chicken it would cut food poisoning by 50%," says James, although, he admits: "We don't really understand the science."
While steam sterilisation appears to offer a relatively cheap way of zapping zoonoses, further down the food chain - if significantly higher up the investment ladder - is high pressure processing, a pasteurisation technique for meat products, already adopted by leading continental manufacturers, like Espuna, but yet to be embraced in the UK.
"Its main advantage is that it's a non-thermal pressure method. When you apply pressure you get only a small temperature rise in the product, so you retain fresh characteristics," explains Craig Leadley who heads up Campden & Chorleywood Food Research Association's (CCFRA's)pressure and heat project.
The costs are enough to make the average clean-living robot go weak at its ergonomic knees, but, even a standard robotic arm is out of the reach of most food businesses, according to Darwin Caldwell, professor of robotics at Salford University, who is working with Yorkshire Forward on developing an alternative costing under £10,000.
"The robot industry has, by and large, not tended to design robots for the food industry. If you want to move it around like a worker, plug it in ... there's nothing that can do that. The line is fixed. We want to be looking at a new type of robot."
At the recently opened north east Centre of Food Robotics and Automation (CFRA) where businesses are offered a free robotic audit in order to encourage greater take-up of the technology, Yorkshire Forward's Stephen Fitzpatrick says too much time has been spent talking about robotics and not enough finding a flexible solution to the food industry's needs. "We need to get out of the rut," he says. FM
- ABB 01908 350300
- BMPA 0207 329 0776
- CCFRA 01386 842 059
- CFRA (S. Fitzpatrick) 07771 975607
- DMRI 00 45 3373 2500
- FRPERC 0117 928 9239
- MPS 00 31 544 390653''