Autonomous Micro-Factories take Food Safety to next level

Food Tech
February 1, 2024

Food safety is always the number-one concern in a food factory. When looking at traditional centralized facilities, managing a single factory is already challenging. Now, imagine making food hyper-locally;  thousands of factories would be required to replace existing centralized factories and supply chains. From a food safety point of view, this seems daunting to manage on a large scale, and yet, thanks to the rapid ascent of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence, it is now not just possible but practical. .

At Relocalize, we have recently launched the world’s first micro-factory for food & beverage manufacturing. But is it really possible to create and maintain the same food safety requirements in hyper-locally distributed microfactories?

Yes, we can, and more! Our autonomous hyperlocal package ice microfactory in Florida has recently passed the highest bar of food safety in the packaged ice industry—the IPIA Packaged Ice Quality Control Standards (PIQCS) audit. Our new way of making ice exceeds current standards by eliminating the biggest source of contamination in traditional factories: humans. Let’s take a deep dive into what autonomous microfactories mean for food safety!

The solution is simple: a factory that has no people inside, but has experts in automated production and food safety overseeing operations remotely.

The 'human factor' in food safety

Contamination by food workers has been identified as a significant contributing factor to foodborne diseases. To prevent outbreaks of public health problems, physical and chemical barriers are applied to prevent microbial contamination of food. Traditionally, food workers are required to wear gloves and designated work clothing to prevent the direct transfer of pathogens. Chemical barriers, such as sanitizer solutions and soap, are used to eliminate pathogens. However, the effectiveness of these measures is sometimes questioned, and workers may occasionally ignore their use.

When food safety measures fail, the FDA warns that food handlers who neglect handwashing can transmit pathogens like salmonella. Individuals infected with salmonella may endure short-term symptoms like fever, headache, vomiting, nausea, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea. Severe arthritis may result in long-term complications. Serious and potentially life-threatening situations are more likely for young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and individuals with weakened immune systems.

While drafting this blog, Quaker initiated a massive nationwide recall of its granola bars and cereal in the United States and Canada. The reason behind this incident is exactly due to salmonella contamination. While the situation at Quaker is still developing, previous food contamination incidents have caused severe damage to the reputation of corresponding brands and incurred significant economic losses.

'We are all human, and we make mistakes.' Human errors inevitably occur whenever humans are involved. Some mistakes may be small and fixable, while others can be devastating. The impact of a food-poisoning incident should never be underestimated.

Food poisoning caused by pathogen contamination

Enhancing Food Safety through Autonomous Production

Consider the possibility of completely eliminating human physical presence from the production facility. What if we had an autonomous production plant monitored remotely by automation technicians? Our Chief Technology Officer, Leigh Copp, firmly believes that 'humanless autonomous microfactories will open new opportunities to take food safety to the next level.'

‘In an entirely autonomous production process where the system operates independently with minimal maintenance, the need for human physical presence on-site is eliminated. Automation guarantees the accurate execution and repetition of the entire production process, ensuring efficiency and product uniformity. Even in the event of an error, the embedded artificial intelligence in the system is designed to skillfully address most issues.’

‘Furthermore, this autonomous approach creates opportunities to implement sanitizing technologies that are unsuitable for places with human presence. For now, this future technology is our protected intellectual property, but we look forward to showcasing this new technology in the future.

Imagine an autonomous food production process

While we explore innovative ideas and devise plans to implement them, our world’s first autonomous microfactory for food and beverage manufacturing, RELO1, has achieved a groundbreaking milestone by passing the IPIA Packaged Ice Quality Control Standards (PIQCS) audit.

Regulation on Packaged Ice Production

Packaged ice is considered a food product by the FDA. Similar to other food items, packaged ice must adhere to the FDA’s regulations for Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs) in Manufacturing, Packing, or Holding Human Food. This entails ice manufacturers producing, holding, and transporting ice in clean and sanitary conditions, monitoring the cleanliness and hygiene of employees, using properly cleaned and maintained equipment, and employing water that is safe and sanitary.

In an effort to encourage growth and uphold high standards in the packaged ice industry, the International Packaged Ice Association (IPIA) introduced the Packaged Ice Quality Control Standards (PIQCS). This industry standard aims to foster healthy growth and superior business practices. The standard encompasses a rigorous protocol covering the entire supply chain, including:

  • Up & Down stream supply chain food safety controls
  • Personnel Hygiene, Food Safety Training, and Best Practices
  • Plant and Grounds Standards
  • Sanitary Operations of Facilities, Equipment, and Utensils
  • Water Standards
  • Master Maintenance Plan
  • Bacteriological Testing of the Finished Product
  • Pest Control Program
  • Food Security and Crisis Management Procedures
  • Supervision and Record-Keeping Program
  • Date/Lot Coding of Packaging for Traceability
  • Warehouse and Distribution Standards

Presently, all IPIA member facilities are mandated to perform annual third-party audits conducted by a third party, such as NSF International, a Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Food Safety, Water Quality, and Indoor Environment. This inspection results in members receiving a collective trademark.

Trademark of IPIA members

‘We are the first microfactory that went through and passed the audit,’ exclaimed our COO, Graham Campbell, who led our audit preparation. ‘Being the first, we wanted to make sure we established a high standard, and therefore, in our preparations, we did a tremendous amount of bench-marking of best practices in food safety. During the audit, the auditor was very complementary to our production system and operating procedures, which we expected. However, what was a surprise was the recognition that we could drastically cut back on the number of food safety critical control points compared to a traditional ice factory.’

‘This validates that our solution exceeds the current regulatory framework and will drive food safety forward to a new level. The possibility of food production at grocery distribution centers is now a reality, opening up infinite possibilities for hyperlocal food production.’

Working Towards a Better Future

Our journey towards revolutionizing the food industry is steadily gaining momentum as we strive to introduce a new system that prioritizes enhanced food safety, sustainability, and affordability for a mass-market product. The success we achieved in the IPIA/NSF audit serves as a testament to our potential to not only meet current food safety requirements but also contribute new insights to the industry.

Looking ahead to 2024, we are excited to unveil our plans to deploy multiple RELO units. These units will incorporate our latest cutting-edge technologies, further solidifying our leadership in food safety. Additionally, the integration of more intelligent AI will elevate our production process, making it even more sophisticated and efficient. We invite you to stay tuned for the exciting developments on our journey towards a future where food production aligns seamlessly with safety, sustainability, and accessibility for all.

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