Meat and poultry processors are seeking ways to address common industry challenges and trends by leveraging cutting-edge advancements in automation and inspection technologies. PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, reported a rise in the use of robotics for food manufacturing in its 2016 report, Food Packaging Trends & Advances. This shift is due in part to the looming shortage of skilled workers and rising costs of attracting and retaining labor. Increasingly, U.S. food companies are deciding the benefits of robotics are worth the investment.

Meat and poultry processors will have an opportunity to discover new automation and inspection technologies at the inaugural ProFood Tech (April 4-6 at McCormick Place in Chicago). The event will focus exclusively on the food and beverage sectors, and it will feature a robust conference program for attendees to learn about best practices and network with industry professionals.

New cutting innovations

Product variability is an ongoing challenge in meat and poultry processing — particularly in the area of cutting; however, the integration of robotics and automation can provide a solution to inconsistent and inexact cuts. Research engineers are developing new technologies that improve accuracy despite product variability. For example, researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute developed a cutting arm for optimizing poultry deboning. The prototype robot analyzes poultry with 3-D imaging technology to determine where to make precision cuts to improve yield and decrease the risk of bone fragments in finished products.

While such research holds promise for the future, meat processors are able to take advantage of new and available cutting technologies that improve efficiencies and product selection. These technologies also minimize human contact with meat products which reduces the threat of contamination.

One common challenge facing meat and poultry processors is ensuring processing equipment meets industry standards for health and food safety. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved wash down robots and end-of-arm-tooling (EOAT), and this approval is helping to pave the way for increasing the use of robotics and automation in meat processing applications.

Automated X-ray bone detection increases food safety

New advances in X-ray inspection technologies help meat processors identify contaminants during manufacturing. Such technologies include sensors that are capable of detecting ultra-small, non-metallic contaminants, including bones. Meat processors can reduce the risk of bone making its way into the final product, especially poultry processors that must combat even greater risk of this occurrence due to the thinness of the rib and fan bones in poultry. Robotic sensors also mitigate concerns surrounding worker fatigue that can lead to errors resulting in serious public health risks.

Robotics help eliminate contamination, foodborne illness

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 48 million foodborne illnesses occur annually in the United States. This means that an estimated one in six people will be affected by a food-related illness. Regulations such as the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are intended to reduce the rates of foodborne illnesses.

New equipment available to meat processors includes automated cutting robots that offer high levels of accuracy. These robots can cut pork or ribs and alternate between three different knives throughout an eight-hour shift. By alternating knives, sharpening becomes unnecessary, as does the downtime associated with it. This innovation is another way to remove direct human contact with food, reducing the chance of foodborne illness or contamination occurring at the site of processing. It also allows for operators to control, oversee and maintain the automated equipment, thus reducing the number of trained employees needed on the processing line.

ProFood Tech: a hub for processing innovation

Moving forward, meat processors can anticipate more automated robotics integrating into their production line. For those looking to discover and learn more about these technologies, ProFood Tech will be a critical resource. The show, powered by tradeshow leaders PACK EXPO, Anuga and the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), will feature food processing solutions from 400 of the world’s top food and beverage industry suppliers across more than 150,000 net square feet of exhibit space.

In addition to providing access to a wide range of technologies, the show will offer a robust schedule of educational sessions covering food safety strategies, regulatory issues, and consumer trends that are changing the industry. The ProFood Tech Conference Program (April 4–6), presented by IDFA and inclusive of topics affecting a wide range of industries, offers 36 sessions, including:

  • Separating Fact from Fiction: The Truth about Food Safety Risks (11:15 a.m. April 4)
  • The Quest for Optimum Sanitation (3 p.m. April 5)
  • The War on Listeria (10:45 a.m. April 6)
  • A pre-conference workshop from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 3 kicks off the show’s educational programming with a focus on managing recalls and protecting brands.

Additionally, as part of a comprehensive learning center, the event will offer the ProFood Tech Learning Hub featuring the Innovation Stage and Regulatory Matters. A series of free, 30-minute sessions offered on the show floor, the Innovation Stage provides easy and convenient opportunities for attendees to learn about critical food and beverage solutions to improve operations. Regulatory Matters offers a regulatory stage covering topics such as FSMA, Recall Avoidance, cGMPs, conducting internal audits, traceability, documentation, food safety management, sanitary plant/equipment design and much more. These 30-minute sessions will be free to attend and will feature an opportunity to discuss these key regulatory challenges with experts and peers following each session. NP

Registration for ProFood Tech is $30 for a limited time. The price will increase to an on-site fee of $100. For more information or to register for ProFood Tech, visit

Early bird registration for the ProFood Tech Conference Program through Feb. 15 is $595 for the full three-day conference and $285 for a one-day conference pass. After Feb. 15, the registration fees increase to $750 and $325 respectively. On-site conference registration fees from April 4-6 are $795 and $375.