Portable inspection devices that detect food safety and quality problems are being developed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists. Recent food safety outbreaks highlight the need for "space-age" ways to prevent such problems at every step in the food production process -- from farm field to grocery store or restaurant.

Scientists led by Yud-Ren Chen at the ARS Instrumentation and Sensing Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., are designing such portable inspection devices by adapting optical technology used for remote sensing of Earth.

Prototypes include binoculars with lenses that detect fecal matter on meat, produce or processing equipment--as well as diseases or quality defects. A camera/light combination can be helmet-mounted or used in a hand-held device to expose fecal matter as white specks on an eyewear-mounted computer display.

Biophysicist Moon Kim tests a portable imaging device equipped with a head-mount display for sanitation inspection of food-processing equipment. (Photo by Stephen Ausmus)

The portable devices are the next stage for a team that recently handed industry a prototype of an on-line imaging system for chicken inspection. Next will be a similar system for inspecting fruits and vegetables.

Team member Stephen Delwiche, working with colleagues at the ARS Grain Marketing and Production Research Center, Manhattan, Kan., has succeeded with high-speed optical inspection of wheat and other grains, detecting protein content as well as mold.

At the ARS Sugarbeet and Bean Research Unit, East Lansing, Mich., Renfu Lu's team uses laser beams to judge taste, firmness and other quality aspects of fresh produce.

Machine vision nicely supports human inspection because its instruments shine light on every single fruit, vegetable, grain kernel, or meat or poultry product that speeds along the processing line. It also gives inspectors an extra pair of eyes for scanning equipment and processing areas for contamination invisible to the naked eye.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.

Note: This article has been adapted from a news release issued by USDA/Agricultural Research Service.