Although India leads the world in exporting spices and dried chili, producing these crops in great quantities can no longer guarantee international sales success. Great quality is also necessary, now more than ever before. To retain their leadership position, Indian businesses must maintain high quantities while also efficiently removing foreign materials to satisfy increasingly stringent global standards.
One reason for this is that increasing numbers of consumers around the world now expect food products to be perfect every time. If shoppers find serious fault with the food they buy and complain about it on social media platforms, their criticisms can reach enough people to damage brand reputations.
Another reason is food regulations defining maximum permissible levels of pesticide residues, mycotoxins, heavy metals, microbiological organisms, and additives. These rules are already so strict in some nations that products, including dried chili spices, sometimes get turned back from export destinations at the point of entry. Even where food regulations are not so strict, they are expected to get tougher in the future.
The good news is that other sectors of the food industry have faced such challenges and overcome them. One of the most effective solutions is to replace manual sorting methods with optical sorting machines. Whereas manual sorting is unavoidably subjective, imperfect, and especially vulnerable to error when laborers are tired or bored, automated sorters can work hour after hour with superior accuracy, consistent standards, and unflagging efficiency. Switching to automation requires investment, of course, but it pays back handsomely by delivering greater throughputs and consistently higher product quality.
This brings us to more good news: the industry leader in designing and manufacturing sorting and grading technologies, TOMRA Food, recently made new sorting applications available for spices and dried chili. What’s more, these applications were fine-tuned here in India, at TOMRA’s Test Center in Bangalore and on the premises of a small number of spice and chili producers in Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Andhra Pradesh.
These extensive validation tests led to impressive results. The two key objectives, ensuring food safety and consistently high product quality, were convincingly achieved. In the words of one of India’s earliest adopters of this technology, Mr. Amit Singhal of DKC Tradex Private Limited: “We had been using conventional sorting machines in our spices and herbs business for quite some time and had some challenges in pushing our limits. Now, with our new TOMRA machine, we see excellent results on our final product and our end customers are also very happy with these results.”
Another early adopter of TOMRA’s technologies is the leading coriander processor in India. The owner and Managing Director of P.C. Kannan & Co, Mr. P.C.K. Maheswaran explains: “The Indian spices industry is shifting from traditional manufacturing methods to global food safety and hygiene standards. With the right investments, we believe that we will be able to satisfy our end customer market requirements. Higher technology machines will help in improving the quality of the product at the same time as minimizing wastage. TOMRA sorting machines are high-quality equipment that helps in solving industry issues. We have seen the improvement in end products and are happy to partner with TOMRA.”
And there’s more: in addition to acting as guardians of food safety and product quality, TOMRA’s state-of-the-art sorting machines can also grade to specification, reduce line downtime, cut food waste by minimizing false rejects, and enhance profitability by maximizing yields.
How sorters see
Even though TOMRA’s spices and chili application is relatively new, the company’s expertise is founded on decades of experience. To date, TOMRA has installed more than 12,800 units around the world to optimize capabilities and reduce waste in the processing of fruits, nuts, vegetables, potato products, dried fruit, meat, seafood, and some types of grains and seeds.
When TOMRA’s sorting machines look for foreign materials and product defects, they inspect the processing line’s material stream with one or more detection technologies: high-resolution color cameras, lasers, near-infrared sensors, and biometric signature identification software. These are able to assess objects on the line according to their color, size, shape, and even their structure and internal characteristics.
In the instant after the sorting machine inspects materials, air jets precisely separate unwanted and wanted products into ‘eject’ and ‘accept’ streams. Ejected materials are either discarded or sent along another line to be sorted again; accepted materials continue along the line toward packaging. Whether the product is sent through the sorting machine one, two, or three times, and what’s most likely to be removed by the sorter on each of these occasions depends on the type of food being processed. So, let’s take a brief look at the processes for dried chili and spices.
Finding foreign materials and product defects
The biggest nuisance crushed chili processors have to deal with is stems. If just one of these gets all the way down the line and packaged with the final product, it can spoil the consumer’s eating experience, tarnish their opinion of the brand that sold the product, and worse still, perhaps pose a choking hazard. Other threats to food safety include foreign materials that get mixed up with the crop during harvesting, such as stones and rat excreta, and materials that fall onto the processing line, such as fragments from workers’ glass bangles. It’s simply not possible for the human eye to see all of these unwanted materials when they’re mixed into the product stream, but that’s no excuse: for the sake of food safety, they must be removed.
At the same time that the sorting machine looks for foreign materials, it also detects and ejects defective product. With dried chili, this typically means removing product with discolorations. Another common defect is cross-contamination of one type of product with another. Again, these things are difficult to detect manually but essential to remove: export markets strictly require packets of food to contain only what’s named on the label listing ingredients.
When processing spices, the sorting machine is located some way down the line. Before the spices reach this point, they will have passed through a pre-cleaning machine to remove dust and heavier impurities such as sticks, stones, and plastic bags and threads; through a finer cleaning machine to remove smaller foreign materials; and through a gravity-separator which divides light and dense product. Then it’s the sorter’s job to detect and eject any remaining foreign materials (likely by this stage to be very small) and discolored products. After this, the rejected product is sent through a sorter once again – a two-step process that minimizes food waste by ensuring that no good materials get discarded.