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Island company buys chemical imaging machine that identifies foreign objects and potato defects

A conveyor belt takes potatoes into the $1.1 million chemical imaging machine to be inspected for foreign objects or defects, such as surface scabs or rot.  TERRENCE MCEACHERN/THE GUARDIAN
A conveyor belt takes potatoes into the $1.1 million chemical imaging machine to be inspected for foreign objects or defects, such as surface scabs or rot. TERRENCE MCEACHERN/THE GUARDIAN - The Guardian

A million-dollar investment into a chemical imaging machine is giving a P.E.I. business a peek inside potatoes without removing the peel and, in so doing, improving the quality and safety of potatoes for Islanders.

“We are responding to the needs of the producers and always assist them to maximize their crop value,” said Romana Roberts, of RWL Holdings Inc. located in Travellers Rest near Kensington.

Roberts and her husband Austin own a farm in Kinkora. In 2013, they joined with farmers at Valley Grove Enterprises Ltd. and Hilltop Produce Ltd. to form the potato pre-processing and wash facility. The company is more commonly known by its trade name P.E.I. Potato Solutions. The company began operations at its 14,000 square-foot facility in January 2014.

Romana Roberts says the new chemical imaging machine along with two metal detectors ensures the safety and quality of potatoes that pass through the facility. TERRENCE MCEACHERN
Romana Roberts says the new chemical imaging machine along with two metal detectors ensures the safety and quality of potatoes that pass through the facility. TERRENCE MCEACHERN

P.E.I. Potato Solutions operates as an intermediary between 15 core client farmers and potato processors, such as Cavendish Farms.

Previously, farmers with a crop with some rot would either have to spread the load onto a field for compost and a loss or ask friends to help wash and pick through to see which ones were salvageable, said Roberts. Farmers also could have been turned away by a potato processor and asked to clean up the load and return, all of which costs the farmer money. 

“There was a need,” said Roberts. “We figured there had to be a better way.”

At the other end, the company helps a potato processor by ensuring the load is clean and free of foreign objects, including metal, or surface defects.

The Insort Sherlock Separator-2400 chemical imaging machine was purchased from a company in Austria for $1.1 million. It has been operational at the plant since September. 

“There is not a facility like this along the eastern seaboard of Canada. With the additions we’ve done now, this was the first machine of its type in North America. There are other machines that could do something similar, but only after the potato was peeled,” Roberts explained.  

Between 350 and 400 million pounds of potatoes a year pass through the facility each year, according to Chris Hunt, plant manager.  

Once potatoes arrive from the core client farms, they are washed and then make their way to the chemical imaging machine. 

Chris Hunt, P.E.I. Potato Solutions plant manager, stands in front of the $1.1 chemical imagine machine that detects foreign objects, such as golf balls and rocks, as they pass through.  TERRENCE MCEACHERN/THE GUARDIAN
Chris Hunt, P.E.I. Potato Solutions plant manager, stands in front of the $1.1 chemical imagine machine that detects foreign objects, such as golf balls and rocks, as they pass through. TERRENCE MCEACHERN/THE GUARDIAN

The machine has a camera system that shows digital images of the potatoes as they pass through with defects or foreign objects highlighted in red. It works by recognizing a potato by its chemical composition and properties. Foreign objects with different compositions, such as rocks, golf balls, plastic, wood or glass, are sorted and diverted down a conveyor belt to be further inspected and, if necessary, discarded. The approved potatoes continue to one of two metal detectors to be further analyzed. 

Hunt explained golf balls are a huge issue because they move like a potato when they go down the line. If golf balls aren’t caught and make their way to equipment, such as a French fry cutter, they can cause damage.

In 2014 and 2015 when the public was warned about nails and pins in P.E.I. potatoes, the company purchased the two custom made metal detectors from a company in Germany. Along with the chemical imaging machine, Roberts said food safety is enhanced. 

“We can say that we’ve had 100 per cent success preventing foreign material from getting to the end users,” Roberts said. “We’ve prevented a lot of potential issues.”

To help with the purchase of the chemical imaging machine, the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency provided the company with a $375,000 repayable contribution in January. The province also contributed $30,000.

Within the next two years, Roberts said the company is planning to double its capacity with a second building and processing line, which would also require additional metal detectors and another chemical imaging machine as well as new separating and sorting technology.

terrence.mceachern@theguardian.pe.ca

Twitter.com/Terry_mcn

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