Pandemic proof: The next challenge for the poultry industry

The U.S. poultry industry has faced unprecedented challenges within our processing plants this year with COVID-19. It is not the only one. Shutdowns in Canada, Brazil, Australia, Ireland, Spain and more show that this is not an American problem, it is endemic to the process of producing safe and affordable food.

0911 F Maidanconnolly1 Headshot
(Andrea Gantz)
(Andrea Gantz)

The U.S. poultry industry has faced unprecedented challenges within our processing plants this year with COVID-19. It is not the only one. Shutdowns in Canada, Brazil, Australia, Ireland, Spain and more show that this is not an American problem, it is endemic to the process of producing safe and affordable food.

What makes food production more vulnerable to infections?

Food factories have certain characteristics that make them vulnerable to infections.

  1. In order to keep food fresh, to reduce spoilage, workplaces are highly refrigerated.
  2. Air is forced dynamically through the workplace, ensuring droplets can travel further than would be the case in a passive ventilation environment.
  3. Washed floors and equipment increase the humidity in the air.
  4. Food factories require a lot of workers, working together at close quarters.
  5. Food is cheap and so wages in food factories are relatively low, so workers tend to take advantage of canteens, communal busing and even low-cost housing offered by the company or otherwise.
  6. Non-English-speaking workers are common, with an endemic fear of compliance officers or drawing attention to system failures.

Leaders of the U.S. meat industry have been proactive in dealing with the issues and taken decisive action to regain control of the situation. They have increased wages and paid workers for not coming in when they are sick. They have provided personal protective equipment, implemented thermal checks on employees on arrival on the floor and found new ways to educate employees of the risks to themselves and others in multiple languages.

7 suggestions to make poultry pandemic proof

But is this good enough, and if not, how do we make our production systems pandemic proof?

I have seven suggestions

  1. Remove humans, as much as possible: I appreciate that eliminating people from the production process is an emotive and even political issue but given the challenges we face, of producing cheap food while keeping both the food and workers safe, is an impossible task. Moving forward the mantra needs to be when possible find a way to do it with fewer people, and more space.
  2. Processing – Robots: The challenge of using robots is obvious to anyone who has ever worked in a slaughterhouse. Trained people are incredibly agile and speedy and routinely combine common sense with flexibility to achieve yields cannot replicate. Until now. The use of smart cameras to inform robots is achieving human-like performance. Add to that the advent of the soft-robots, widely on display at the 2020 IPPE, shows how far we have come, in balancing efficiency and safety with the delicate touch required to not bruise meats or eggs.
  3. Quality – Machine vision: Machine vision, and artificial intelligence, is changing the ways we grade and process chicken and pork. Cameras have been digitizing the images from meat as it passes on the shackles for over a decade, but recent advances make it possible to engage in a greater degree of sophistication to define sizes and quality, and to divert product in different directions. The next stage will be to use NVIDIA cameras to spot defects, pathogens and more in real time and make decisions using spectra of light not visible to the human eye.
  4. Deliveries - Driverless trucking: It goes without saying that the days of trucks driven by humans are numbered. Self-driving trucks are already with us, and some have proposed banning human drivers from the highways, especially as the number of fatal incidents remains stubbornly high. Whether it will be achieved while humans remained emotionally attached to their cars the attraction of running driverless trucks 24 hours a day will be huge. Look for the last miles to be delivered by drones, since we already are seeing models capable of delivering 1,000 pound loads a distance of 25 miles. The potential for reimagining the supply chain is huge.
  5. Part shortages - 3D printers: As the first stages of the pandemic evolved it became clear how reliant our society has become on just in time deliveries from FedEx, UPS and more. As those supply chains fractured the attraction of being able to print parts on site becomes enormous. 3D printing is certainly not as robust as it will need to be, but the promise for parts on processing lines and more will make this technology indispensable in our factories.
  6. Safety – Sensors: The use of sensors ranges from the mundane to very sophisticated. Sensors ability to record and confirm compliance with food safety norms such as hand washing, following HACCP process was initially embraced by groups such as Disney and food groups such as Mars and Nestle but inevitably Covid-19 has driven interest in this to all parts of the supply chain.
  7. Training – AR & VR: The use of Augmented reality and Virtual reality in the food industry has primarily focused on consumers, such as McDonalds efforts in the UK, and the training of specialists such as Veterinarians in the UK and Australia. While our land grant Universities may have been ill prepared for the need to run classes on line, or at least a degree of interactivity similar to what we see in the class room, huge investments are now going into increasingly sophisticated ways of engaging and evaluating how well the learnings are being received. I expect this to open a huge number of new ways for us to train workers in our poultry and other protein processing plants.

As I have said before, and many have said since, Covid-19 hasn’t created new technological advances so much as accelerated their adoption. The need to embrace them in our processing plants is different, because to not do so is to invite the real possibility of a threat to our business existence.

NOTE: Technology and the future of the processing plant will be part of the discussions at the upcoming Virtual Poultry Tech Summit where Aidan Connolly will be chairing several sessions. Make plans to attend the 2020 Virtual Poultry Tech Summit, and take a look at the future of the industry. This one-of-a-kind online event facilitates the transition of innovation technologies from researchers and entrepreneurs into commercial applications for the benefit of the poultry industry. Registration is now open.

View our continuing coverage of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

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