Seeing What is Inside Food Products03 June 2013
How much fat is there in this meat? How much meat is there in this crab? How sweet is this apple? Being able to answer what is inside a food product without cutting it open or damaging it opens up new market opportunities, wirtes Wenche Aale Hægermark for the Norwegian research institute Nofima.
QVision is presented as an example of success in the government's latest white paper on research "Long lines – knowledge provides opportunities". Here is an account of the research, the development work and, not least, the opportunities.
It is the opportunities, in fact, that have made process analysis for the food industry a focus area for TOMRA Sorting Solutions.
Success demands advanced measurement techniques, and with the assistance of the research institutes Nofima and Sintef, TOMRA Sorting Solutions has developed a measuring instrument called QVision.
"The expertise of the research institutes Nofima and Sintef has been central to the development phase. They have expertise in areas where we do not. While we are experts in spectroscopy and industrialisation, Nofima knows all about the component parts of food and the measurement methods for analysing them and Sintef are experts in optics," said Geir Stang Hauge, who is responsible for process analysis at TOMRA Sorting Solutions.
Started as a basic research project, now has a significant technological leadAs long ago as the mid-1990s, Nofima started a basic research project with the aim of developing robust measurement techniques and instruments for use in food production.
Senior Research Scientist Jens Petter Wold, who has led this work right from the beginning, is certain that we are only at the beginning of the commercialisation phase.
“The market potential is huge. There are many organisations involved in food production that could benefit from the opportunities this technology offers.
Long-term development work is also the key for TOMRA. Most people associate TOMRA with reverse vending machines and recycling, and it is precisely the spectrometry technology that is used in sorting waste that creates the starting point for the QVision technology.
With 20 years' experience in developing this technology, they have a big technological lead over their rivals.
For TOMRA, the focus on quality measurement of food products started in 2005.
They contacted Nofima, which saw great opportunities for the food industry and had the right contacts.
This type of development work requires a broad-based cooperation between many fields.
In addition to process analysis of food, TOMRA Sorting Solutions has focused a great deal of its efforts in 2011 and 2012 on quality sorting of food.
Following acquisitions and their own development, TOMRA Sorting Solutions is now a leader in the sorting of food, with over 500 people working on solutions for the food industry.
Superficial competitionSeveral manufacturers are developing equipment that appears similar to QVision and is based on the same type of light – near-infrared, or NIR.
NIR light is absorbed by various chemical compounds and can therefore be used to measure, for example, the quantity of fat, water and protein in many foods.
What is unique about the specially-developed NIR QVision scanner is its ability to "see" inside food products and not just the surface.
"This gives far more precise measurements and many interesting opportunities. Our product is also difficult to copy, because it has been developed on the basis of our technology, which is itself based on 20 years' experience in developing spectrometers," said Hauge.
There have been a number of food-related problems to overcome in order to get the NIR scanner working to the optimum.
"These included tackling height differences in food products, compensating for temperature differences and handling the effects of light scatter from the surroundings, for example," said Wold.
Greatest potential in the meat industryUntil about a year ago, TOMRA devoted most of its time to developing the equipment, but they have now gone into the sales phase and have established a good foothold in markets in the USA, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain.
Tomra is also continuing its development work and collaboration with the research institutes in Norway, so as to develop yet more new solutions.
"Our initial focus was on seafood, but we have found that the meat market is easily the biggest one for us, especially internationally. We are now focusing on developing more solutions for the meat industry, and with us in this development work are Nortura, Nofima, Sintef and Animalia," said Hauge.
Since 2008, most of the development work has been about assessing meat quality. Several seafood producers have also been able to enjoy the benefits of QVision.
One example is crab producer HitraMat.
They use the system to measure the food content of live crabs, which means they are able to sort them for different uses.
Investment quickly pays for itselfThe most important reason for the meat industry's interest is the earnings opportunity in being able to measure fat better.
If fat content is measured directly in the production process, quality can be better controlled and the manufacturers can remove product variations.
They can save money both by doing away with complaints about high fat content and by not making the product too lean. The quality of the raw materials purchased can also be controlled.
For meat producers, this means that they can make better products, make better use of the raw materials and streamline production.
The research into developing robust measurement techniques has been going on for a long time and has received funding from several sources.
The Foundation for Research Levy on Agricultural Products, the Research Council of Norway and the Fishery and Aquaculture Industry Research Fund have all been important in this regard.