Food Engineering

Packaged produce supplier keeps quality high, suppliers honest

June 1, 2010
Automated optical sorting system weeds out bad produce and traces problems back to the supplier.

Installed at Natures Way Foods, Key’s Optyx 3376 with FluoRaptor, narrow-belt 3000 series sorter weeds out produce with defects or foreign bodies. It also retains images of foreign bodies to be sent to respective suppliers. Source: Key Technology.


Natures Way Foods (NWF), a leader in fresh produce manufacturing, supplies prepared bagged salads and fruit products to major retail and foodservice companies in the UK. The processor takes great care to provide customers with high-quality products and superior service. To do this, NWF strives to control the quality of its incoming produce.

Having already been a Key Technology Inc. customer using its vibratory conveyors throughout the plant, NWF sought equipment that could ensure quality standards are consistently met from suppliers’ produce. NWF chose and installed Key’s Optyx with FluoRaptor, a fluorescence-sensing laser/camera sorter designed to detect and remove foreign material and defects from the production line.

“Prior to installing Optyx, we relied purely on manual inspection. However, this was not as effective as we would have liked, so we decided to add an automated sorter to the line to remove defects and foreign bodies,” explained Richard Bonn, purchasing manager at NWF. “The sorter eliminates insects, stones and anything else that could come into the factory and get into a bag of salad and create a negative consumer experience.”

The automated sorting system combines color cameras and laser technology on one platform to achieve complete sorts. The color cameras recognize size, shape and millions of subtle color differences. The laser detects differences in the fluorescent properties of objects to remove foreign material and defects, even if they are the same color as good product.

“In addition to removing defects and foreign bodies from the product, we use the sorter as a control point,” continued Bonn. “When we find foreign bodies in the product, we take them out, but we also track the incidents and trace them back to the suppliers. We send the supplier either the actual foreign bodies or pictures of them from the sorter, and we challenge the supplier to take steps to improve the quality of the product they send to us.

“Before we installed the sorter, it was much more time consuming to identify where problematic product came from. Now, it’s very easy to monitor which suppliers are performing badly or well, based on the statistics the sorter collects,” Bonn said.

For its line that processes spinach, rocket and red chard, NWF selected the Optyx 3376 with FluoRaptor. The narrow-belt 3000 series sorter can sort up to 2,200 lb. of baby leaf greens per hour and up to 4,200 lb. of crisphead lettuce per hour. Key designed NWF’s sorter specifically for baby leaf produce, with product handling and sanitation features that help keep the sorter free of product build-up during production so it operates at optimal performance and improves sanitation.


For more information:
Bret Larreau, 509-529-2161, product.info@key.net