Thursday, April 11, 2024

University partners with fruit and nut processor to increase food safety

Leeds Beckett University experts have partnered with a family-owned Bradford business to revolutionise the screening process for aflatoxin in pistachio nuts, using artificial intelligence.

The academic team has established a Knowledge Transfer Partnership, partially funded by the Government through Innovate UK, to develop an innovative screening platform in collaboration with Father’s Farm Foods – a small, family-owned processor of imported fruit and nuts.

Pistachios, renowned for their nutritional benefits, are particularly vulnerable to aflatoxin contamination – a carcinogenic toxin that also encourages mould growth in processed products. The key to reducing overall infection levels lies in excluding highly contaminated nuts. Currently, this involves manually inspecting the nuts under specialised lighting – a costly, time-consuming, and unreliable process that sometimes results in discarding entire batches.

Dr Akbar Sheikh-Akbari, Reader in Electronic Engineering at Leeds Beckett University, is leading the project. He said: “We are developing an innovative method to identify infected pistachio nuts using hyperspectral imaging technology. This cutting-edge approach, which I teach to Master’s students at LBU, provides a detailed ‘fingerprint’ of an object’s composition.

“By analysing a broad spectrum of light and breaking down each pixel, it yields significantly more information about an image. This novel technique, new to both Father’s Farm Foods and the industry, will enable the company to automate the screening process, reduce waste and costs, and enhance factory efficiency.”

The team will create a hyperspectral image dataset of pistachio nuts with known infection levels – and then train an artificial intelligence model to classify new images based on their level of contamination. This groundbreaking solution represents a long-term innovation in pistachio nut processing, setting the company apart from its competitors.

Dr Hossein Mehrabinejad, CEO at Father’s Farm Foods, said: “We are keen to build on the progress and growth that the company has already achieved. We are excited to take the business to the next level with this collaboration and aim to offer the screening service to other companies for a fee in the next stage – providing a long-term commercial impact to our business and industry.”

There are regulations in more than 120 countries, governing acceptable levels of aflatoxin in imported pistachio nuts. So, rigorous screening is essential to ensure successful exports. Father’s Farm Foods plan to integrate this new in-house screening platform directly into their production line, enabling growth in both UK and international sales.

Dr Akbar Sheikh-Akbari added: “This project is highly innovative. Applying hyperspectral imaging and artificial intelligence to quantify aflatoxin levels in pistachio nuts is an endeavour that has not been explored before.”

The KTP will run for 33 months, and will be managed by a full-time Research Assistant, Sina Mahroughi, with the full support of three expert Leeds Beckett academics. Working alongside Dr Sheikh-Akbari is Dr Theocharis Ispoglou, Reader in Exercise Nutrition and Physiology in the Carnegie School of Sport, and Dr John George, Reader in Microbiology in the School of Health.

PhD students and specialist lab technicians at Leeds Beckett will also share their expertise on the project.

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