Does the apple you're about to ship to grocers have a bruise? Is the tomato on the conveyor belt fouled by manure? Thanks to an advanced optical scanning system developed by scientists with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), produce packers will soon be able to detect certain kinds of defects or contaminants on the fruits and vegetables they supply to retailers.
Here's how it works: A camera takes a picture of, say, an apple making its way along a conveyor belt. The apple simultaneously gets exposed to ultraviolet and infrared lights, which analyze the fruit for damage or impurities. When linked to a sorting machine, the results help separate bad apples from good.
Although investing in a device to identify dirt, blemishes or bruises on apples might not seem worthwhile, the system could reveal more serious flaws, such as animal fecal matter, according to Moon S. Kim, a physicist working on the project. "The scanning technology doesn't detect specific pathogens," Kim said. "But fecal matter is an indirect indictor of pathogens." Case in point: Cattle manure containing E. coli was deemed responsible for the tainted spinach that caused an outbreak of foodborne illnesses in 2006.
As food safety becomes increasingly important to grocery shoppers, devices like the USDA's could develop into indispensible tools for fruit and vegetable growers, and they could make or break produce sales for retailers. A new survey on food safety found that 73 percent of respondents are more concerned about the food they eat than they were five years ago. And the Deloitte 2011 Consumer Food and Product Insights Survey also showed that more and more people are counting on manufacturers, retailers, the government and advocacy groups for food-safety information.
Mike Greenblatt, owner of Manahawkin, N.J.-based Pangaea Naturals Health Food Market, predicts that more technologies like the USDA scanner will "help keep the food chain clean" in the future. However, a gadget won't be able to replace the close relationships Greenblatt maintains with his fresh produce suppliers. Customers rely on Greenblatt to inspect the goods—for quality if not safety—in person. "With our supporting farmers, we can always go have a look at what is going on at the farm, packing house and delivery vehicles," Greenblatt said. "This allows us to do our part in keeping the food clean. It is also the reason why we have gone to the extra expense and effort to become a certified organic retailer."
Will produce scanning technology pay off?
Kim said that a working prototype of the optical scanning system, which will allow a 360-degree whole-surface view for inspection of round fruits and vegetables such as apples, oranges and tomatoes, will be available by the end of the year or early spring 2012. Although no federal regulations require produce scanning—yet—Kim expects a private company to quickly and eagerly pick up the technology for commercial development and use.
"Once something happens, the industry loses quite a bit of money," Kim said, estimating that the spinach E. coli outbreak cost everyone involved upwards of $300 to $400 million. "The industry wants to prevent any future mishaps."
Will Daniels, senior vice president of operations and organic integrity for the Palo Alto, California-based organic produce producer Earthbound Farms, said that if the device can consistently detect pathogens and defects, his company would use it. Plus, if the device is effective, he thinks the government should consider making testing mandatory. "Anything that can bring a higher level of food safety to the consumer should be strongly considered," Daniels said. "The big issue here would be cost, but the cost of the positive would be minimized by real-time analysis."