Covid-19 has raised serious questions about the safety, efficiency, and overall efficacy of meat processing. From labor shortages to infected workers to empty store shelves, the pandemic has only highlighted the many ways in which the industry is due for a technological update.
Among the many companies working on this upgrade is Canada’s P&P Optica, which is hoping to help meat processors up their food safety inspection game with hyperspectral imaging.
“Covid-19 influenced how quickly we were able to deploy some systems,” founder and CEO Olga Pawluczyk tells AFN. “But I think the need for quality control has been growing for meat and food processors at large. Covid-19 made things more visible to consumers.”
P&P Optica just raised an undisclosed amount of funding in a Series B round led by Ag Capital Canada, with new investor Synovus Family Office joining in alongside existing investors Fulcrum Global Capital, Export Development Canada, and others.
The Waterloo, Ontario-based company’s Smart Imaging System uses hyperspectral imaging to gather data on every item that it inspects. It can assess quality-related metrics like fat-to-lean ratio in bacon and sausage, or tenderness of steaks – as well as identifying muscle myopathies like ‘woody breast‘ in chicken. And by examining chemical signatures it can identify contaminants that existing methods like x-rays and metal detectors are prone to miss.
These allow users to see inside of food, but the x-ray can’t pick up density information from an object. The general rule in the industry is that if something can float in water, it’s unlikely that an x-ray will be able to detect it, according to Pawluczyk. This means that certain types of bones, and items made from most plastics, cardboard, wood, and rubber — things that are always very present in food processing plants — are not detectable by x-rays.
Metal detectors are also commonly used to identify things like shavings from augers, but only certain types of metals can be identified. This means that human inspectors have to screen for these contaminants.
“The problem is that looking at a production line for multiple hours is not something that humans are very good at. People can spot things once in a while, but to pay attention for eight hours or more is a difficult task,” Pawluczyk says.
P&P Optica will use the Series B funding to roll out the Smart Imaging System at meat processing facilities across Canada and the US as well as enhancing its software and insights platform for the processing industry.
A few other startups are applying hyperspectral imaging to food production. FruitSpec uses the technology to count fruits while ImpactVision uses hyperspectral imaging and machine learning to rapidly assess food quality. The latter was recently acquired by Apeel Sciences so that its clients can see “inside” their fresh produce to better understand quality. [Disclosure: AFN‘s parent company AgFunder is an investor in ImpactVision.]
It doesn’t appear that many are targeting the world of meat processing, however, so P&P Optica may have found a niche; though there’s still some way to go.
“Belief in the technology has definitely improved over the last several years, but it’s been a lot of hard work and education,” Pawluczyk says.
“How do you describe spectroscopy to a layperson? How do you describe that what we see is different and better compared to the information they already collect? It’s the standard problem of technology adoption in any business.”