In the past ten years, the Canadian agricultural sector has implemented numerous innovative technologies. These advancements range from data systems that provide farmers with guidance on optimal timing for spraying, seeding, and harvesting their fields, to the utilization of robotic milking machines and artificial intelligence in creating optimal conditions for cultivating crickets.
Meat processing plants are also progressing, albeit at a significantly slower pace.
Experts suggest that the meat-processing industry could reap several advantages from enhanced technology, such as artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics. These advancements can help address labor shortages, enhance food safety measures, and ensure competitiveness in the face of alternative options like plant-based proteins.
However, progress has been gradual.
“We are behind in several aspects,” stated Andreas Liris, the Chief Information and Technology Officer at Maple Leaf Foods. “While we are making some minor investments, we are certainly trailing behind other sectors.”
The use of robotics has been prevalent in the manufacturing industry, including automobile factories, for many years. However, it is important to note that the process of fastening a bolt in a car is distinct from working with meat, as each animal is unique.
One of the challenges is replicating the human eye and touch. So far, robotic butchers aren’t able to make precise cuts and can also struggle to accurately tell the difference between skin, fat, bone and meat in chicken and turkey facilities.
Liris mentioned that it is extremely challenging, but there is improvement. She also stated that robots are becoming more responsive to touch.
Companies are making progress by implementing robotics to transport heavy animal carcasses within their facilities, as well as to stack and move boxes for delivery. Additionally, they are optimizing transportation loads to minimize the need for trucking.
Liris stated that Maple Leaf has started implementing sensors on their trucks to monitor the temperature and humidity of chicken flocks during transportation from farms to facilities. This technological advancement has proven beneficial in enhancing animal well-being and meat quality.
A number of startups from Canada are making efforts to enhance the industry by utilizing advanced technology. One such company is P&P Optica, located in Waterloo, which combines hyperspectral imaging and artificial intelligence to analyze the chemical composition of food during its processing.
Once the advanced imaging technology was developed, the subsequent task involved ensuring the durability of the equipment to operate in low temperatures and withstand the intense force of hot, soapy, high-pressure water used for sanitizing facilities.
Olga Pawluczyk, CEO of P&P Optica, expressed concerns about the challenge of installing a delicate optical system in a manufacturing plant that requires daily cleaning. She emphasized the necessity of thorough cleaning procedures to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria like salmonella, listeria, and E. coli. In simple terms, the environment is far from gentle.
The company now has its equipment installed in 10 meat packing facilities in North America. The imaging technology detects and measures quantities of protein, water and fat, while also noticing any contaminants, such as plastic debris that could break off from a conveyer belt.
Filling positions in the meat processing industry has always been a consistent challenge due to its labor-intensive nature. The jobs are typically low-paying and considered undesirable, as workers on the factory floor repeatedly perform tasks such as deboning and slicing livestock using knives and saws.
In the initial phase of the COVID-19 outbreak, meat-processing plants faced significant challenges due to the rapid transmission of the virus among closely spaced workers. This situation brought attention to the industry’s heavy dependence on these workers, resulting in multiple plant closures and disruptions in meat availability at grocery stores, ultimately leading to price increases.
Mike von Massow, a food economist at the University of Guelph, stated that investments in technology could potentially relieve one of the industry’s pressure points, namely labor.
“He stated that these issues will worsen as time goes on, explaining that reducing the amount of labor required in the industry could help control the rise in food prices. However, it is important to note that there are several other factors that also affect the prices of grocery items.”
Certain people in the industry view technology as the solution to relieve the burden of labor, whereas others imagine robots supporting workers instead of displacing them.
Michael Ngadi, a bioresource engineering professor at McGill University and the creator of MatrixSpec Solutions, is currently working on a technology that has the potential to decrease the amount of labor needed in a facility. Over the course of a decade, he has been developing a tool that can determine the quantity of fat or marbling present in pork. It is worth noting that North Americans tend to prefer pork with lower fat content, whereas certain Asian countries have a preference for higher fat levels.
Ngadi mentioned that at present, workers are trained to evaluate the quantity of fat on the processing line. However, a blend of machine learning and AI might offer increased dependability.
Ngadi stated that if someone spends around eight hours solely focusing on pork products, it is expected that their efficiency may eventually decline. Additionally, if someone is experiencing a headache or having a bad day, these factors can also contribute to decreased productivity.
Improved cutting leads to increased profits.
MatrixSpec Solutions is one of several startups receiving funding from the Canadian Agri-Food Automation and Intelligence Network (CAAIN), a not-for-profit supported by the federal government.
Another project receiving financial support is Mode40, which aims to improve profit margins for meat packers, while also reducing their energy use.
One of the technologies of the Steinbach, Man.-based company is using data and AI to determine how to optimally cool an animal carcass in the most energy-efficient way.
Cameron Bergen, the CEO of Mode40, stated that an incorrect temperature can make it challenging to make accurate cuts. He explained that meat can become rigid when too cold and slippery when too warm.
Making an incorrect cut can lead to a decrease in the sale of high-value meat products such as steak or prime rib, while increasing the sale of lower-value products like ground beef or sausage.
“It may only add up to quarters for that meat, but when you’re in a facility that processes one million or two million or more animals a year, those quarters per meat add up to dollars per carcass. And those dollars per carcass add up to significant impacts for the industry,” he said.
According to von Massow, advancements in technology within the meat processing industry hold significant importance for both the broader agriculture sector and the overall national economy. In the year 2022, Canadian beef exports alone accounted for a value of $4.7 billion.
With the rise of lab-grown meat and plant-based proteins, the stakes are high for the meat-processing sector to become more efficient, he said. The sector is embracing innovation, but so far, he said, the pace of change hasn’t been quick enough.
He mentioned that he is not aware of any place where there are companies with advanced technology, particularly in a meat-packing plant.