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Food safety and efficiency drive innovation in food processing

  • 5.5 min read

Food and beverage processors have been forced to lay their innovation cards on the table. In an era when brand power, customer loyalty and, above all, product demand are driving markets, businesses have adapted and continued to innovate to meet the changing times.

Bakery embraces innovation, uncertainty

For the Calgary Italian Bakery, a commercial operation since 1962, the need for change and innovation to stay afloat has been a necessary, if harrowing, road for co-owners and brothers Louis and David Bontorin.

Reflecting on the early part of 2020, when much of the world was self-isolating as COVID-19 made its way around the globe, Louis says the timing wasn’t great for implementing innovation at the bakery. Business acumen led to the urge to hold onto cash, but Louis and David had other ideas.

“Even though it (was) sort of a time of darkness, it’s also a time of rebirth,” David says.

More natural food

Part of the company’s rebirth strategy was a deliberate shift back to producing breads and other products that “mom and dad used to eat,” – foods with the fewest ingredients possible. That line is called Famiglia (Italian for family), a tribute to their parents, and contains no added sugar or fat.

However, the switch involved ripping out old extrusion technology. The equipment produced a consistent product, but it was hard on the dough and ultimately weakened its gluten strength. That meant additives had to added to the bread to re-leaven it.

Re-evaluate to adopt the agility to innovate and give customers what they want while still earning a profit.

The addition of three new pieces of equipment in the summer of 2020 allowed for key changes. The bakery added a de-panner, a complete bread line - including a divider to separate the dough, a rounder to round the dough, an intermediate proofer to let dough relax and rest, and a molder for shaping the dough - and a loader for their hearth oven.

The new equipment, which is still automated, allows the bakery to double hourly output while being considerably gentler on the bread dough and removing additives - important for the finished product that a customer will eye in-store.

“Long-term, it’s a big push for quality,” Louis says, adding the growing consumer demand to get back to basics foods.

As Bontorin looks ahead to the future, he and David are re-evaluating all relationships, processes and their business model to adopt the agility to innovate and give customers what they want while still earning a profit.

“Do you want to be a butterfly or a moth?” he says of the business climate. “I’m hoping to be a butterfly.”

Meat processor speeds up production, increases safety

Innovation to improve safety for both food and personnel has been the focus of innovations at Sunterra Farms in Alberta. The pork producer sells throughout the province, as well as to various Asian countries.

President Ray Price says a new 12-food long conveyor belt-style microwave is now in place to aid with the production in the company’s salami division.

The giant microwave is capable of defrosting 3,000 kilograms of meat an hour. Meat is separated into 20-kilogram blocks and is chilled in just 150 seconds and then moves on for further processing. Previously, meat thawed on its own to a chilled temperature before processing. This procedure took anywhere from 24 to 48 hours, depending on the size of the meat block. It was handled multiple times and the processing line physically took up lots of space at the operations centre.

Increased efficiency

The new line requires two people, it’s faster, safer and less product is lost due to liquid evaporation.

“[The difference between] personal safety and food safety is very narrow,” Price says. “A lot of the things we do to keep food safe, we do to keep our staff safe.”

With less people working on the meat thawing, they have re-deployed labour into other productive activities at the plant.

Food safety

Beyond the new microwave, the company has also installed both X-ray and metal detectors for products leaving the plant. Foreign material could end up in a product during processing and these two devices add an extra layer of security moving forward.

Some importing countries have high standards and these machines give Sunterra’s customers the peace of mind knowing their products are free of unwanted contaminants. It’s a simple, yet highly important process for Price that benefits his customers.

“The automation probably layers in another level of food safety,” he says.

Overall, Price says it’s critical for businesses like his to continuously improve, since customers recognize quality.

“The innovation never stops,” he says. “We can’t go back, we have to continue to innovate, otherwise people are going to go without food or food is going to be a lot more expensive.”

Proactive innovation research

Food safety was also top of mind as Gay Lea Foods worked with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to develop a chemical-free way to prevent the risk of listeria in food processing environments.

The Canadian dairy co-operative partnered with AAFC’s Research and Development Centre in Guelph to identify and test the effectiveness of natural antimicrobial that will specifically target only Listeria bacteria without harming other beneficial species.

Listeria monocytogenes is one of the most common food safety risks for humans, and outbreaks of Listeria-associated food-borne illnesses have been traced back to fresh and ready-to-eat foods like dairy, meat, eggs, vegetables and seafood. Effective sanitation is key to controlling Listeria in processing environments, but this involves the use of chemicals.

Anilda Guri, senior research scientist at Gay Lea Foods says there is growing consumer demand for natural products. Developing a chemical-free way to prevent the risk of listeria is in anticipation of meeting that demand.

“We took this opportunity to be the first ones in dairy to support this type of research,” Guri says. “This is not a mitigation situation, but a way to be proactive for the future.”

The goal of the research, part of the Canadian Food Innovators research cluster through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership's AgriScience Program, is to have a new bio-sanitation agent for sanitizing equipment, food contact surfaces and drains in food processing plants, and serve as an effective natural alternative to chemical antimicrobial products.

Joe Lake, director of innovation and research at McCain Foods Limited and chair of the Canadian Food Innovators research cluster says there’s room for this innovation to expand to other bacteria-driven food safety concerns across the broader food processing sector.

“Projects like this are important to enhancing the productivity, quality and competitiveness of Canada’s food and beverage processors,” Lake says.

Bottom line

Remaining agile, anticipating consumer demands, watching out for food safety and increasing efficiency all play pivotal roles in seeking and implementing innovations in food processing - from bakeries to meat processors to dairy processors.

Article by: Trevor Bacque