Quality Assurance Depends on Equipment, Systems
Welcome to the world of quality assurance (QA) in fresh-cut produce. Regulators mandate it, customers expect it and fresh-cut processors and shippers understand they have to find better ways to provide it.
“If you found a blueberry in with the cranberries, it wasn’t a big deal,” said Bret Larreau, manager of business development for Key Technologies, remembering the days when “inspection” meant sorting produce by hand on a conveyor belt. “But any more, there’s just no tolerance for any of that.”
The human factor will always be a part of QA for fresh cut. There is still a place for human workers in places like the front of a lettuce line to physically remove the outer leaves. But in a system that requires constant monitoring and measuring, specialized equipment takes center stage. Washers, optical sorters, cutters, cooling systems, fillers, software and other devices are needed to tie the entire QA apparatus together.
“We want to gain control of raw material from start to finish. Quality assurance enables us to get a quality product that conforms to specifications,” said Brian Hill, president of Palcon Systems, which specializes in food production process improvement and design.
From manufacturing to food
Plex Systems has been providing its Plex Online manufacturing management software to the automotive, aerospace, electronics, industrial machinery and precision metal forming companies. Now it has expanded into food and beverage and has its first produce project for a major supermarket chain.
“We’ve taken key parts of our system and brought them together as a food management system,” said Tom Nessen, manager of solutions engineering for food and beverage. “We are maintaining and monitoring the shop floor and plant activities, key systems and traceability capabilities.”
Plex ERP Software offers a variety of functions, including traceability, batch production, quality management, regulatory compliance, scheduling, inventory management and electronic data interchange.
Plex Online is a Web-based piece that uses cloud computing, which enables a company to conduct its business without purchasing several databases and computer systems, said CEO Mark Symonds.
“You just connect over the Internet, or the cloud, to our secure data center and we store and back up and protect all the data and programs,” Symonds said. “It really enables small and medium- sized businesses to access world-class technologies that would otherwise be out of their reach.”
The idea of connectivity is also important to how Key Technologies designs QA equipment and services, said Larreau. Key’s newest optical sorters include the Optyx 600 and the Tegra 7755E. These sorters work with connective software programs, one of which is called RemoteMD, to provide real time monitoring and diagnostic tools for the sorter as it works.
“I think we’re going to see more connectivity,” said Larreau. “There are only a few early adopters that have started this. But it has to become the status quo.”
Key’s optical sorters are used for leafy greens, cranberries, fresh pack cherries, dates and baby whole cut carrots. The company has been manufacturing optical sorters since the 1980s and has in recent years been focusing on elimination of foreign materials, said Larreau.
Palcon Systems addresses the issue of QA by integrating all aspects of production from the design of the factory to the actual packaging of the product.
“We get involved with the design and layout of processing equipment, space planning, tracking, storage coolers — the overall flow of the processing and distribution facility,” said Hill, noting that fresh- cut produce distributors and processors make up approximately 85 percent of the company’s business.
To Hill, the two pieces of indispensable QA equipment for a fresh-cut line are the wash/cooling system and the disinfectant system.
“That system takes a product, washes it, brings it down to temperature and disinfects,” he said. “That is the critical part of the line. So if we were going to build a line on a limited budget, that’s the area where you don’t want to make a sacrifice.”
--By Lee A. Dean, Contributing Writer