Enlightening Food Safety and Quality Assurance

The rapidly emerging technology of hyperspectral imaging is promising to help the food industry gain ground in a host of areas, from quality assurance to pathogen detection and farm management.

By analysing a wide spectrum of light, instead of just assigning the primary colours of red, green and blue to each pixel, the light striking each pixel is broken down into many different spectral bands to reveal a wealth of additional information.

With the costs associated with hyperspectral imaging coming down, the practice which has typically been used in military applications is now spreading into other industries. According to HinaLea Imaging, a US company currently wooing European food producers with its hyperspectral imaging technology, the potential applications are plentiful.

For example, it can be used in quality assurance for the detection of anomalies across a variety of food products and for the detection and classification of food-borne pathogens. Precision agriculture is another area – the imagery can be used to detect crop viability, vegetation coverage and hydration mapping.

Historically this technology has been very expensive and you’ve needed a PhD to be able to operate it, however, the cost of the hardware has plummeted and the advent of machine learning or AI means that it is far easier to use.

A crisp or chip factory, for example, could now train a hyperspectral imaging system to ensure batches contain the optimal amount and coverage of seasoning. The imaging technology could also potentially help growers save costs by optimising the ripeness of crops.

“There are crazy applications that you would never think of because you’ve just never been able to use this technology in the industry before,” explained Barry McDonogh, general manager HinaLea Imaging.

“One of the very interesting things that we started doing on the food processing side is pathogen detection. We’re working with the USDA to pursue an in-line level of pathogen detection. The basic idea is that you can get pathogen results in the plant instead of needing to take the samples to the lab. Hyperspectral imaging basically allows it to be inspected in the line at the plant roughly at the time with no incubation.”

Optimising cooking time for foods such as potatoes and beans, as well as foreign object detection are also on the list of use cases and the company further claims that hyperspectral imaging can be utilised to identify packaging integrity and for fill inspection.

“It’s a new technology and with these hyperspectral systems, the idea is that we can replace or augment existing inspection systems,” concluded McDonogh.”

“I think it’s going to be a very interesting technology going forward.”