Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs minister for food Mark Spencer set the tone for the days proceedings by acknowledging the work the meat industry has already done to tackle the challenge of labour shortages.
In doing so, he centred the conversation around the future meat processing plant and what role it will play in the Government’s vision for the future workforce in the UK – a workforce led by skilled labourers and the greater use of automation.
“I know historically the food and farming sectors have relied on foreign workers and Defra has contributed to the migration advisory committee shortage occupation list review by highlighting the challenges processors are facing recruiting workers domestically and overseas,” said Spencer.
“But we must also acknowledge the UK is committed to becoming a high-skilled, high wage economy and we’ve been clear more must be done to attract British workers by offering training, career opportunities, wage increases and to invest in increased automation technology.”
Future of automation
Hildur Einarsdottir, automation centre manager at Marel, then took to the stage to give insight into the future processing plant and how far along the meat processing industry was in its automation journey.
She begun by highlighting the progress made by the poultry and fish processing industry compared to meat, which in itself has not seen a significant change in how a plant works in almost 100 years – while some advances have been made in cutting technology, factories are still filled with people having to carry out exhaustive work of deboning carcasses.
But while automation technology has been an easy fit for poultry processors – cutting a chicken has little variance from bird to bird, the same with fish – cuts of meat come in all shapes and sizes and cannot easily be handled by a machine.
While the modern meat plant must rely on manual labour to make cuts that are non-uniform with low traceability and at slower speeds, the truth is that machines are still at a point where it would cost significant amounts of money to deploy a system that could barely keep up with a human worker.
However, this isn’t to say the automation couldn’t be deployed at different points in a meat plant, to do menial tasks that would free up workers for more important work.
Cobots on the line
Collaborative Robots (Cobots) could be used on the line move heavy carcases. Cobots are designed as such so they can work alongside their human counterparts or even take their place if they call in sick on day. Their design means that factory managers don’t have to consider the integrate into the line, since they can be placed where a person might usually stand.
Einarsdottir also highlighted the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) within the meat industry and how it could be used to boost efficiency and reduce things like giveaway. In once example she gave, a factory implementing AI in the US was able to achieve the same yield from 9% fewer animals.
“Do think that we’ll be heading towards a light’s out factory by 2040? Unfortunately not,” Einarsdottir concluded. “That may not be the answer you were looking for, but I do think we can get really far [towards that goal]. It will take a lot of effort, it will take a new strategy in place, a long-term plan, what steps the industry wants to take to reach a point where you can truly say we have gotten to the next level of autonomation.
“It needs commitment, a close partnership with suppliers and customers to figure out what is needed. But to put it into perspective, its 17 years until 2040 and 16 years ago the first consumer got an iPhone in his hand – just imagine what that completely disruptive technology has done to society in our time, so don’t underestimate what you can actually do in the next 17 years.”
Rounding up this year’s conference was Paul Wood, professor of clinical sciences at Monash University, and his take on cell cultured meat and how it would affect the meat processing industry going forward.
Wood’s exploration into the future of cultured meat comes as regulatory approval for cultivated meat companies Good Meat and Upside Foods presents potential future approvals for the UK and European Markets.
He fielded the question, “was cultured meat transforming the industry?” and proceeded to break down just how far along the technology has come and what sort of disruption to the market meat processors could expect.
Some of his apprehensions surrounding the development of cultured meat as a sustainable food source to replace traditional animal protein was its positioning as a solution to the planet’s need for more sustainable produce. Areas of the world that were in desperate need of more food included the like of Africa and Asia, places that have not been the target audience for cultured meat products.
Wood also raised concerns over the nutritional profile of cultured meat. At the time of reporting, there has been no major body that has published the nutritional profile of their cultured meat product, prompting him to question just how healthy of a replacement these products can be.
Despite the high profile investments being made in the sector, Wood didn’t believe that cultured meat would be anything more than a premium commodity only available in high-value markets and we would be unlikely to see a burger made from cultivated cells any time in the near future.
“All this technology was feasible, it’s just that the business models don’t make any sense. I believe that cell-based and most precision fermentation products will be niche, high-value markets – that’s not transformational,” said Wood.
“The inability to scale these technologies at a reasonable cost remains a challenge. You can never say never – it’s not ‘no chance’, but it’s only a little bit more than that.”