Down to the Bone
Toronto poultry processor invests in next-generation X-Ray inspection technology to bring its bone detection capabilities to a whole new level of excellence
Founded in Toronto in 2006 by local entrepreneur Augo Pinho, ADP Direct Poultry Ltd. is certainly not the kind of company that tends to put all its eggs in one basket.
In fact, product diversification and recipe customization for meeting specific customer requirements are two of the most prominent and refined core competencies that have enabled the hard-working poultry processor to vastly expand its customer base in the last few years, while also breathing new life into the Canadian grocery aisles with innovative, nutritious, healthy and, above all, perfectly safe fresh poultry products to satisfy virtually any taste or occasion.
Serving a growing number of clients in the retail, private/white label and foodservice industries, the family-owned company is a living testament to the virtues of innovation, experimentation and creativity in product development and packaging sophistication.
Always game for trying new products and styles to grow its business, while integrating new technologies into its production process to remain a highly efficient and flexible operation that can turn on a dime when called on, the company is nevertheless a steadfast and devoted disciple of using X-Ray product inspection technology as its prime line of defence against product contamination—down to virtually microscopic levels.
For vice-president of operations Claudio Neves, carrying the distinction of being the firm’s first employee hired by founder Pinho, the company’s recent purchase and installation of an Eagle PXT (Performance X-Ray Technology) X-Ray machine at its 22,000-square-foot poultry processing facility in Toronto’s west-end suburb of Etobicoke is a logical next chapter it its blossoming business partnership with Orangeville, Ont.-based packaging automation integrators PLAN Automation, the Canadian distributor for the product inspection systems and technologies manufactured by Eagle Product Inspection of Tampa, Fla.
Having already had achieved astounding improvements in contaminant detection—most notably bone detection—at the company’s head office manufacturing facility a few blocks away after installing an Eagle 400 RMI (Raw Meat Inspection) system there about three years ago, there was really no need to look elsewhere when the time arrived to bring X-Ray technology to the smaller case-ready processing facility on Vansco Road, according to Neves.
After a few consultations and brain-storming sessions with PLAN Automation’s vice-president and product inspection specialist Mat Bédard, Neves was convinced that Eagle’s new state-of-the-art line of PXT (Performance X-Ray Technology) system would be a perfect fit for the company’s latest capital investment aimed at reinforcing its outstanding reputation for product quality, specifically for superior bone detection/removal in its boneless breasts and other boneless chicken parts.
“We have had a good working relationship with Mat for at least 15 years or so, and we have always found him to be very good to deal with,” Neves relates.
“When we did some trials with their first X-Ray unit, they proved and showed us that the system can find very, very small bones still embedded in the flesh after manual deboning and trimming, which was imperative to our operation,” Neves recalls.
“We saw very good success with bone detection during those trials, and with the price of the system being competitive to other options on the market, we made a decision to purchase that unit, and it has worked very well for us,” he says.
“When we decided to acquire a second one for this other plant, we just went directly to Mat,” Neves relates, “because we were very happy with the unit that we already had.
“It’s really nice to have suppliers you don’t have to worry about.”
Says Neves: “Over time, consumers have been becoming a lot more demanding in terms of getting a truly boneless product when they’re buying a boneless product.
“After we installed or first X-Ray system, we saw bone complaints related to boneless product drop dramatically.
“And as we continuously improved our process,” he relates, “we are now pretty much next to no complaints at all.”
Employing about 100 full-time workers in a one-shift operation running Monday-to-Friday schedule for most of the year, the Vansco Road facility has many long-time, highly skilled production line operators possessing exceptional skills for trimming and deboning raw chicken, Neves confides.
But with the steadily increased volumes of raw chicken and turkey being processed at the plant, continuing to rely on visual and manual inspection to spot and remove tiny bone fragments from the meat before packing was becoming more challenging all the time.
“As we have been increasing our capacity to provide our customers with more boneless products that they want,” Neves says, “getting another X-Ray unit would be beneficial to the consumers, to our customers, and to ourselves.”
For director of sales and marketing John Febrey, the latest investment in state-of-the-art X-Ray inspection technology is a reflection of the impressive growth in both sales and volumes that Direct Poultry and its sister company Premium Foods have enjoyed in recent years.
“I’ve been here for five years, and we’ve never had a year of less than double-digit growth in that time,” Febrey told Canadian Packaging on a recent visit to the fast-paced Vansco Road plant brimming with human activity at the cutting tables and humming with operating machinery and conveyor lines moving the product through all its processing and packaging stages.
“In fact, last year was the best one yet for the company despite COVID,” says Febrey, crediting the company’s stellar reputation for outstanding customer service as a critical competitive advantage in the fresh poultry markets.
“We always try to go above and beyond what we can to help our customers out if they’re in a pinch,” he says, “or if they’ve shorted by another supplier.
“We always do whatever we can to meet their needs,” Febrey states, “with both our existing customers and the new customers coming on-board.
“And having these customers stick with us went a long way helping us to grow our business even in a very challenging [last] year,” say Febrey, noting the Vansco Road plant now produces about 35 different SKUs (stock-keeping units) in various pack styles, sizes and formats.
In addition to sound organic growth, ADP Direct Poultry has also carried out a few important strategic acquisitions in the last few years to fuel its growth in market share. The include the the addition of Simple Path Farms, a farming and slaughtering operation in Welland, Ont.; the acquisition of Bonte Foods, a meat processing and further manufacturing company based in Dieppe, N.B.; and the premium Blue Goose brand of value-added retail chicken products sold nationwide.
“The market growth in chicken, compared to other proteins, is extremely strong,” Febrey says. “The only limiting factor is just the availability of it.
Like for so many raw material items, the availability of chicken has been challenging as the industry deals with unique challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, he notes.
“By building solid relationships over the years we’ve been in the business, we have been able to maintain the same high level of service to our customer base despite the challenges paused by rising costs of raw materials and any other supply chain issues,” Febrey notes.
“While the retail segment has been our fastest-growing business,” Febrey points out, “we are also well-known as an exceptionally strong developer of custom-formulated products for our food-service and industrial clients.
“We’re doing an excellent job for them,” Febrey proclaims, citing a ringing endorsement from Lyndon O’Hearn, head of culinary-beverage and supply chain operations at a popular Ontario restaurant chain Lone Star Texas Grill.
Says O’Hearn: “Premium Foods is our exclusive supplier of Lone Star Texas Grill proprietary formula chicken breast and strips.
“Guest experience and quality are of paramount importance to our brand and having capability for bone detection is a critical step to achieving that,” O’Hearn states.
“We are pleased to say that we have not had any bone or foreign material complaints with the product coming out of their facility.”
Such warm feedback is priceless to Direct Poultry, according to Neves.
“By making such a significant investment in safety with our second X-Ray inspection line, our customers know that our products are also safest product out there for them to spend their money on,” he proclaims.
As Neves explains, the plant’s highly skillful and experienced production staff are very adept at locating and removing the fan bone and the collarbone from chicken breasts to make them as boneless as possible, but it’s not a fail-proof solution when it comes to smaller-sized bone chips and fragments.
“The X-Ray system is an added step of insurance for catching and finding things that people just can’t see,” he says.
“It doesn’t eliminate all of the manual and visual bone inspections we do,” Neves points out, “but it is obviously very helpful to have this added level of insurance, whereby a rejected product comes back to the operator’s light-table to have any remaining bones removed.”
According to PLAN Automation’s Mat Bédard, the launch of PXT technology in 2020 was one of the most important milestones and breakthroughs in Eagle’s recent history.
“Eagle had identified poultry bone detection as one of the hardest applications for X-Ray inspection well before 2020, as well as one of the biggest opportunities for this technology,” Bédard relates.
“There were some machines available that did a fairly decent job of poultry bone detection,” he says, “but none that did an excellent job.
“They (Eagle) spent a lot of R&D dollars and worked diligently to come up with a new technology that would really revolutionize poultry bone detection, and in 2020 they came up with this new PXT technology that provides the ability to detect smaller bones than any other system in the industry could,” says Bédard.
Capable of detecting calcified bone fragments as small as one millimetre in size, the new PXT technology incorporates proprietary dual-energy X-Ray technology that uses density, as well as chemical composition of the product, to detect ever smaller bone particles, while also sharply reducing the incidence of ‘False Reject’ readings to less than one per cent.
Says Bédard: “A lot of our competitors try to increase the detection size limits, but that results in increased false reject rates.
“If you have a production line running 120 to 150 pieces per minute and rejecting seven to nine good breasts every minute for no reason at all, you will go bankrupt,” Bédard says. “Poultry processors typically just don’t have the time to rework such a large percentage of their production output.”
In contrast, there is no trade-off between detection size sensitivity and false reject rates with the PXT technology, according to Bédard, because it is designed to excel at both.
Incorporating a purpose-built X-Ray generator with proprietary TDI (time-delay integration) software and robust SimulTask image analysis software, the PXT technology was “engineered and designed specifically for the poultry industry,” says Bédard, who estimates to have sold nearly 20 PXT X-Ray systems to poultry processors across Canada since its launch.
As Eagle explains, this radically enhanced detector technology, featuring smaller diodes with a smaller pitch, collects more detailed data about the product being inspected.
When analyzed with advanced image analysis software, it provides images with much higher resolution to allow poultry processors to find the smallest bone fragments, down to 1-mm, with high repeatability, low false rejects, and less rework.
According to Eagle, the PXT can be deployed to suit a wide range of applications at any product control point, including chicken and turkey intended for retail packs, as well as incoming raw material bound for further processing into products like sausages, patties, or nuggets.
Moreover, the versatile technology is equally effective for detecting bone and foreign contaminants in both fresh and frozen products, according to Eagle, and it can handle thick products like turkey breasts or thinner products such as chicken tenderloins.
From an operational standpoint, processors can use X-Ray devices equipped with PXT in both single and multilane set-ups and as stand-alone critical control point, or they can be networked to enable full process optimization and efficiency analysis.
In addition to superior bone detection capabilities, the PXT X-Ray systems also offer superior capabilities in the detection of all the usual contaminants such as ferrous and nonferrous metals, stainless steel, glass, stone, and high-density plastics and rubber.
According to Bédard, the Eagle PXT technology had outperformed its nearest competitors during rigorous head-to-head tests conducted at a major U.S.-based poultry processor by a wide margin along all the key performance criteria—validating PXT as the best technology of its kind in the market.
Says Bédard: “Although PXT was originally designed to address poultry bone detection application because it was one of the hardest applications, in doing so we have opened up market opportunities we never had before, like detecting fish bones or tiny sand pockets in shellfish, as well as detecting low-density contaminants such as aluminum and certain plastics and rubbers down to one millimetre in size.”
While such applications may be of only passing interest to Direct Poultry, for Neves and his staff they provide an extra level of confidence in their X-Ray equipment and vendor selection.
“It is a very user-friendly system offering a lot of pre-loaded recipes with different configurations, depending on the products that were being run at the time,” Neves says.
“If there are any adjustments to be made on-the-fly, our QA (quality assurance) guys can usually make them in a matter of seconds, keeping downtime to a minimum.
“We have always met or exceeded the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) standards in terms of bone control,” he says, “but doing it manually meant that we were always running a risk of letting some unwanted bone fragments get through the process.
“With the addition of the PXT system from Eagle Product Inspection,” he concludes, “that risk has now been dramatically reduced.”