The Future of Food Safety
Last week the Obama administration dug into its long-planned overhaul of the nation’s food safety rules. The 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act represents a seismic shift of our food safety focus. Instead of responding to contamination, we’ll prevent it. And we’ll do it with robots.
We think about robots as a labor-saving asset, freeing workers from the repetitive drudgery of high speed production—heavy manufacturing like the automotive and electronics industries often come to mind first. But advancements in their technology have made it possible for robots to perform delicate food-related tasks. Robots can be outfitted with laser vision and armed with attachments like tweezers, whisks, and suction grippers. They can reach into a chicken to pull out its guts, gently draw milk from a cow, and pack eggs into cartons with the utmost care; and now they’ll be enlisted to help meet the challenges of our new food safety policy.
Robots are equipped for the often harsh environment of food processing.
They don’t burn in the oven or get cold in the freezer. They’re not squeamish or sensitive to unsavory smells. They can work around acids, smoke, and fumes, and don’t mind noisy factory floors. They also have their own built-in hygiene. They don’t need gloves or hairnets, they don’t get sick, and their surfaces can be bleached, boiled, or otherwise sanitized.
Brain surgery is easy; try deboning a chicken.
Robots have performed heart bypasses and microscopic eye surgeries for years. Robotic engineers have only now figured out butchering. Chickens in particular have especially complex and variable anatomy, and the robot has to size up each bird individually, calculating internal and external contours in 3-D. The scientists stuck with it because butchering robots can greatly reduce health risks.
Instead of waiting for e coli to appear in a child’s fast food hamburger, it can be stopped at the source. Precision meat processing reduces the possibility of accidental cuts into organs like the stomach and the intestines that harbor harmful bacteria. When there is an incident, robots can perform visual scans that locate surfaces that need to be disinfected, and can quickly quarantine contaminations.
Order a book from Amazon and you can track its progress right to your door—each incident of transportation and package handling along the route. The eggs in your refrigerator are another story. We learned this the hard way in the summer of 2010 when more than 1,600 people were sickened by salmonella as federal investigators spent weeks winding through private accounting records and public health databases before finally unearthing the source of the contamination.
The European Union has had food traceability regulations in place since 2005. Until now, the U.S. has had voluntary, mostly arbitrary tracking programs and inventory management systems. Robotic vision systems will fix that by reading and storing bar code data and interfacing with other product identification technologies such as RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags. They’ll trace food from farm to table, identifying every stop, every machine, every hand it passes through along the way.
You can read the full text of the Food Safety and Modernization Act and follow a timeline of its implementation at the FDA website. Obama’s National Robotics Initiative has reserved $70 million for related research.