For humans, our enjoyment of food is about more than taste. We eat with our eyes as well as our stomach and this largely contributes to the astonishing scale of food waste across the world. Here, Stephen Harding, managing director of materials management specialist Gough Engineering, explains some of the problems caused in food processing plants by irregular shaped products and ingredients.
It’s reported that around one third of food produced for human consumption is wasted each year. Fruit and vegetables have the highest wastage rates of any food, with farmers discarding between 20 and 30% of produce because of its appearance.
Despite minor physical imperfections on most foods having no actual effect on the taste, quality or shelf life of the product, anything that is considered ugly, or not cosmetically pleasing, can doom a food item.
Research has shown that this is greatly down to our eyes leading the way when choosing what we eat. Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford, found that people’s perceptions of food are typically dominated by what their eyes see, and this is because eating is a multisensory activity. Appearance in this instance is, therefore, important.
In agriculture, farmers can easily distinguish and separate the food items that would not be accepted as adequate while picking. For processing plants, managers must include steps and integrate the necessary equipment into their manufacturing lines to make sure irregular or misshapen foods or ingredients, are removed.
Irregular shaped foods are not only unsettling to consumers, but they can also cause problems along the production line and, in some instances, lead to downtime in a food processing plant.
Most food processing plants have similar automation and motion control needs. This includes material conveying, positioning, heating and cooling, as well as other process parameters.
When an irregular-shaped food occurs in production, this often demonstrates to engineers that there is an issue somewhere along the line, or that there has been a mistake in the most recent recipe batch.
In some situations, if left unattended, the irregular products accumulate and so downtime is required so that the plant engineers can investigate and fix the malfunction wherever it occurs on the line. The issue can be easily identified as the product may cause a block in the filler heads, packaging machinery, or even get stuck to any moulds used in production.
Reducing valuable production time, downtime for reactive maintenance like this is necessary to reduce the number of misshapen and therefore unwanted items.
To overcome this issue, processing plants can integrate specialist equipment like Gough Engineering’s Linear or Circular Screens to ensure the uniformity of certain food products. The vibratory sieves use more uniform vibrations to minimise screen blinding and food getting trapped with processing equipment.
The range also features a separate exit point for any irregular shaped products, which are automatically identified, to fall through. These rejected food items and ingredients may then be collected and processed again to eliminate any defects. As well as eliminating the chances of downtime, screening also helps plant managers to reduce the amount of product waste.
Consumer demand for aesthetically pleasing foods is unlikely to die down any time soon. By investing in the right equipment, food manufacturers will be able to effectively protect their production line from mechanical issues, while also ensuring quality output that is a treat for eyes and mouths alike.