Digital Detectives: A new wave of innovators is improving food safety and bottom lines

By Dana McCauley, Chief Experience Officer, Canadian Food Innovation Network

Do you ever wonder whether your food is safe to eat? While our sensory organs are amazing tools that help us to evaluate the safety of food, they aren’t infallible. In fact, foodborne illnesses occur surprisingly often, affecting many people and exerting stress on the health care system. According to Health Canada, about four million Canadians, or one in eight, are affected by a foodborne illness each year, resulting in more than 11,500 hospitalizations and more than 235 deaths.
While illness is the most significant outcome of our inability to consistently detect pathogens and identify food quality deficiencies, financial losses incurred by food businesses are a significant issue, as well. Despite rigorous quality controls and regulations, the Canadian food system often identifies foods that are past their prime or are suspected of being compromised. When that happens, foods and ingredients are often discarded, resulting in productivity and financial losses that devour profits and lead to higher food prices for the end consumer.
Fortunately, a new wave of technology-savvy entrepreneurs is using their creativity to come up with new and better solutions for assessing food quality. Because of their efforts, food products are becoming safer, food waste is reduced, and food businesses are able to be more profitable. Canadian companies are on the forefront of this new wave. I spoke to three founders working to solve different food safety and quality problems and discovered that each company, although using different technology to learn different things, are working through a consumer-centric lens to sell their technology to food business clients.
Savormetrics is an artificial intelligence driven company, based in Mississauga, Ont., that analyzes biochemical and biophysical factors to determine food quality so that retailers and food processors can get the highest-quality food to the consumer. “Our technology assesses the decay patterns and biochemical markers present in foods so that the best quality food gets to stores when it tastes and looks its best,” explains Harjeet Bajaj, president and CEO of Savormetrics. “Our customers invest in our real-time food quality analyzers because they know that we can help them to have the information they need to make the data-driven distribution decisions required to achieve high consumer satisfaction scores.”
Savormetrics delivers on its value proposition by predicting the shelf life of food products and recommending how to deploy foods differently through the supply chain. For example, using its handheld devices, employees at a distribution centre can assess produce to gauge its true shelf life. If, for instance, a bag of lettuce has five days shelf life, the distribution manager may choose to change plans to send the shipment from Moncton to Vancouver, and instead send it to another province in the Atlantic region. As well as reinforcing customer loyalty, Savormetrics’ clients see significant reduction in waste due to shrink, a combination of benefits that also helps companies to be more profitable and less wasteful.
At the step in the food supply chain where value is added to food commodities in manufacturing and production facilities, operations managers are encouraged to schedule large batch runs. While the advantage of having one set of equipment and employees doing the same thing for many hours leads to economies of scale, with larger lots the possible loss of product and productivity when quality issues are identified has been historically large.
For instance, if a piece of metal is found in one chicken nugget as it travels through a metal detector, quality assurance teams must assume that every chicken nugget that didn’t go through that detection device since the last equipment inspection may contain metal as well. Since no responsible company would ship products to their customers with a chance of contamination, historically the entire batch would go into the garbage, leading to food waste and tremendous loss of productivity.
Innovators like Olga Pawluczyk, CEO of P&P Optica (PPO) out of Waterloo, Ont., are making this occurrence much less likely. Using a combination of hardware and software, the company’s Smart Imaging Systems are designed to improve nutritional quality, safety, and sustainability. Once the system is installed on production lines, quality managers get feedback on issues in line, in real time. Since every piece of product is inspected, it’s easier to isolate and eliminate only the small number of products that do not meet quality standards. “We’re able to understand chemistry quickly and precisely to detect things in new ways that don’t belong on or in our food,” says Pawluczyk.
When it comes to foodborne pathogens, the stakes are higher than brand reputation and efficiency. Life is on the line and time is of the essence. Traditional methods of pathogen detection required samples from a batch to be sent to a lab where a technician would then grow a culture for three days to identify if harmful bacteria is present in the food. This long and expensive process prevented food manufacturers from doing frequent testing and required them to keep large batches of product on hold until samples were cleared to be safe.
“One sample collection per day is really not good enough to ensure food safety because bacterial growth can be massive in just a day or two,” says Nisha Sarveswaran, founder and CEO of Kraken Sense, a Mississauga, ON-based startup that specializes in real-time automated pathogen detection. Kraken Sense’s approach is to draw samples from food production lines continuously to monitor how bacteria levels change. Needing only electricity and a Wi-Fi connection, the company uses filtration systems to monitor water and wastewater quality to detect when bacterial pathogen loads start to approach levels of concern.
While these new tools represent significant progress, Bajaj, Sarveswaran and Pawluczyk predict that traceability tools will continue to improve and offer more opportunities to ensure consumers are confident in food quality. While Kraken Sense is currently perfecting E. coli detection, Sarveswaran says the company has started testing for Salmonella, Listeria, and Legionella. Bajaj is also excited by the opportunity to follow produce as it makes its journey through the supply chain, allowing consumers to see information such as where the bagged salad was stored, if it was repackaged along the way, and other handling information that could change its quality or composition. Gathering this sort of data along the supply chain will also allow consumers to view and verify place of origin and product claims, such as organic or non-GMO.
Pawluczyk also sees an opportunity to apply the technology to improve the quality of consumer-facing nutrition information. The nutrition panels on most grocery items are calculated on the basic product formula and reflects that aggregate ingredient used in the formulation from just one set of suppliers. For most of us, this information is all we need to make sound dietary choices. But elite athletes and those with health conditions that require prescriptive nutrients may be looking for more detailed information. PPO’s technology can already analyze protein, fat and water content of meat products, and Pawluczyk envisions a future in which measuring the chemical composition of food quickly will reflect a more accurate nutrition facts panel. PPO’s Smart Imaging System uses an artificial intelligence engine that collects and processes the data gathered by the system, providing food processors with relevant and usable information. Through software modules and training, this AI engine is capable of using the data from the company’s detector modules to assess many different properties of food and provide rich insights over time. Pawluczyk hopes that one day this will be used to precisely measure the nutritional value of every food and food product based on the exact ingredients it contains.
While that may seem like more information than most of us need, as our population ages many experts predict that food will increasingly be prescribed and treated as medicine and preventative medicine. There’s evidence that this trend is already emerging. Consider Performance Kitchen, a US company whose CEO John Yamin announced that he is working to position functional food as a viable health management tool worthy of insurance company reimbursement.
Canada has a strong international reputation as having one of the best food safety systems in the world. Innovators working to improve traceability are helping Canada maintain that reputation and to export not just more great food products but food safety technology products, as well.

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