October 2, 2020


Meatpackers in North and South America fast-track automation after COVID-19 outbreaks


Major global meat producers and exporters in United States, Brazil, and Canada have been slow to adopt technology compared to Northern Europe or Japan, but this has changed following COVID-19 outbreaks among meat plant workers, Reuters reported.


Representatives from Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods and JBS SA said they have plans to introduce automation, which will increase food security and improve plant safety.


Cantrell Gainco, an automation supply distributor, said meat plants only account for US$1 billion of annual sales of automation supplies and services in the world. Advisory firm ROBO Global said this is a small piece of the estimated US$215 billion business of industrial automation.


However, North American packer interest is rising. Russ Stroner, vice president of global sales at Cantrell Gainco, based in Georgia and sells Japanese manufacturer Mayekawa's chicken deboning equipment, said they have fielded double the amount of inquires since the pandemic.


In a statement, Mayekawa said its chicken deboning robot parts global sales will increase to US$45 million in 2020 from US$32 million in 2019. It expects sales to hit US$60 million next year, including sales this summer to Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms and Peco Foods in North America.


In Brazil, Frimesa, the country's fourth biggest pork processor had plans to spend about BRL 20 million (~US$3.53 million) on automation annually, but now will increase that by 5%, said Frimesa's research and innovation manager, Claudecir dos Santos. The aim is to introduce automation where workers normally are clustered.


Five robots will be introduced to Frimesa's Assis Chateaubriand plant in Parana state. These robots cost EUR 500,000 (~US$586,000) each and will perform tasks like cutting swine's chest open, eviscerating it, and cutting the swine in half.


In Canada, one of the country's biggest pork and poultry processors, Olymel LP said it had plans to introduce automation before it had to temporarily close its plant in Quebec for more than two weeks.


Marco Dufresne, vice president of engineering and project management at Olymel said the company now intends to fast-track the plan, using robots to sort meat cuts, pick and pack shipments and stack boxes.


Back in the US, Tyson Foods director of engineering Doug Foreman said the company will push for automation due to the pandemic.


The biggest selling meat firm in the US said it has tested a robot at its Arkansas automation center during the summer. It uses machine vision to shift chicken breasts from a conveyor belt into tray packs that are intended for retail.


Pilgrim's Pride, a major US poultry producer majority owned by JBS Brazil, said it will use automation to double the capacity of its Minnesota plant in July.


Henrik Andersen, Denmark-based Frontmatec chief commercial officer, producer of automation equipment for the food industry said COVID-19 pandemics have accelerated the need for automation because it's less likely to have outbreaks when you have fewer workers, adding that demand from meat plants in the US has been strong.


However, labour groups are concerned over the push for automation.


BJ Motley, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) branch representing Smithfield workers in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said automation takes away jobs. Over 1,000 workers at that plant were infected with COVID-19.


He said Smithfield introduced automation to split swine a few years ago, removing the need for eight workers. A Smithfield representative declined to comment.


Kim Cordova, president of the UFCW local union that represents JBS beef plant employees in Greeley, Colorado, said JBS USA uses automation as a negotiating tactic.


Cordova said JSB threatens workers with automation if they speak up. A JBS spokesman said the allegation is false.


The economic fallout from COVID-19 has limited the scope for major technology investments. Cantrell Gainco's Stroner said meatpackers have placed equipment orders worth up to US$400,000, but more expensive projects have been put on hold because of pandemic-related uncertainty over cash flow and demand from consumers.


-      Reuters