Securing food supplies: tools for achieving greater resilience and sustainability

As current crises demonstrate, even industrialized countries are inadequately protected against food supply shortages. Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV are working on tools to make the food sector more crisis-proof.

From the empty supermarket shelves during the coronavirus pandemic to food shortages and rising prices in the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine — not to mention the ongoing threat of famine around the world due to climate change, heatwaves and flooding — current crises have exposed the weak points in our food supply. They have come at a time when the food situation is already under strain across the world on account of the rising global population and climate change. Droughts, heavy rain and other extreme weather events resulting from global warming are causing crop failures worldwide, including in Europe.

Guaranteeing a supply of high-quality, wholesome food is crucial. But how can the food industry become more resilient, i.e. more resistant to crises? "Resilient value chains for food production" (German only), a white paper by the Fraunhofer institutes IPT, IME and IVV, analyzes resilience factors and provides recommendations for action. On top of that, Fraunhofer researchers have developed a Resilience Evaluator (FReE) (German only) that companies can use to put their resilience to the test. Together with Fraunhofer EMI and the AFC Consulting Group, Fraunhofer IVV has specifically adapted the evaluator to the food industry. The food industry is distinct from other sectors because its products are susceptible to spoilage and contamination by microbes. As a result, the requirements for food safety are high. For example, entire goods flows could be rendered inedible if spoilage agents or pathogenic germs — which are almost impossible to detect in the raw material — multiply across the value chain. This, along with natural ripening and spoilage processes, mean that quick and smooth logistics are more crucial to product quality in the food industry than in many other sectors of the economy.

Focusing on seasonal and regional products

Vegan cheese alternatives can be made from local peas
Pea protein is an excellent basis for the production of cheese alternatives

Under the leadership of Fraunhofer IVV, six Fraunhofer institutes are working to identify risks in food supply value chains and come up with solutions. The researchers are looking at different scenarios to identify disruptive factors. However, some weak points can only be remedied by reconsidering the current system — comprised of globally interconnected supply chains — from the ground up. For this reason, Fraunhofer IVV is setting its sights on a return to seasonal and regional produce. This serves to protect the environment by reducing transportation routes and storage and cooling times, as well as reducing packaging.

Fraunhofer IVV is playing a major role in planning the Center for Biogenic Value Creation and Smart Farming (German only), an initiative by the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft with locations in Bavaria and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Among other things, it aims to increase the value creation of regional producers. Fraunhofer IVV already supports Bavarian farmers in direct marketing by using computing power for logistical optimization. In addition, Fraunhofer IVV is using local resources to develop innovative new foods, such as cheese made from rapeseed oil and pea protein.

The food industry could also improve its resilience by using raw materials more efficiently and putting a halt to its wastage. Misshapen apples and other odd-looking fruits do not usually make it to the market. However, a microwave vacuum process developed at Fraunhofer IVV can be used to produce crunchy, healthy snacks from these fruits.

Assessing quality with sensors and digital twins

Wine analysis using low-cost chemosensors

Researchers at Fraunhofer IVV are also aiming to avoid food losses by using sensors that can provide reliable information on quality and shelf life. This data is gathered in digital form, then used to control the logistics and further processing depending on the condition of the raw ingredients. Fruit with wrinkled skin or bruises, for example, is not suitable to be sold as is — however, it could still be used to make juice, jam or fruit puree. And even if the damage is severe, it is still sometimes possible to ferment the fruit into vinegar.

Humans use various senses to assess their food. Technical sensor systems (German only) are based on this principle. Just like our noses, gas sensors can detect the substances that typically indicate spoilage. In addition to this, optical sensors are used to recognize the shape, color, size and state of the goods. This multi-sensory system is then adapted to the respective food product. Favoring the principle of small data over big data, researchers identify the smallest possible number of reliable parameters for a specific product, so as to enable sustainable digitalization — an equally important factor in resilient systems. The sensor technology will be specifically applied to key points along the value chain, such as when the raw ingredients are introduced and before certain processing steps are carried out — as opposed to when the product is being packaged or at home in the refrigerator.

It would be ideal to have a sensor-based system that can monitor food from the raw material stage until the end product. However, this is not really feasible. For one thing, the sensor technology is based on microchips, which are already a scarce resource in many sectors. Moreover, there are still no suitable sensors to detect many of the parameters that indicate the condition of food products. As an alternative, Fraunhofer IVV is collaborating with other Fraunhofer entities to develop a food monitoring system based on artificial intelligence (German only). To achieve this, the most significant chemical, physical and biological processes that affect a food product, along with its characteristic data, are incorporated into a computer model. This creates a digital twin, making it possible to track changes in the quality of the food product virtually, right up until it reaches the consumer’s plate.

Safety in production: cleaning robots and hygienic design

Modern sensors are also helping to monitor hygiene at production facilities. For example, Fraunhofer IVV has developed an optical sensor system that can detect fats, proteins and other traces of food on surfaces using UV light. These residues form a breeding ground for undesirable microorganisms and are a food safety hazard, as they pose a risk of cross-contamination. A mobile cleaning robot developed at Fraunhofer IVV can recognize these contaminants in production rooms and facilities, and remove them in a targeted manner. Thanks to its sophisticated sensors, it can recognize the degree of contamination and adjust the amount of water and cleaning agent used accordingly.

The engineers at Fraunhofer IVV are also experts in hygienic design. They design systems and components in a way that makes them less susceptible to contamination and easy to clean if a fault occurs. Hygienic design also simplifies how systems are cleaned after switching to a different raw material or recipe — in which case cross-contamination must be avoided completely. As it stands, many production plants are highly specialized. However, there is already a need for greater flexibility, as companies are more resilient if they can process different raw materials depending on availability.

Compensating for skilled worker shortages through digitalization

User-friendly interface through man-machine dialogue for fast problem detection and solving
User-friendly interface for troubleshooting.

When it comes to the manufacturing industry, a crucial factor in the efficiency of a processing machine is how experienced its operators are. A shortage of skilled workers and frequent staff turnaround pose another challenge to the food industry. To help overcome this, Fraunhofer IVV is developing self-learning operator assistance systems digital systems to which experienced employees can submit their knowledge, such as information on faults and how to fix them. The assistance systems combine human knowledge with machine learning. When a problem occurs, they are able to suggest detailed solutions to less experienced employees.

Be it digital assistants, modern sensor technology or providing support for regional producers, ensuring a more resilient food supply requires both rethinking established structures and creating new technologies. It all comes together at Fraunhofer IVV.