To survive in business today, industry expert Menashe Tamir says, fruit exporters have to know their product inside out. And if their business relates to avocados, apples, or dates, a new system by Eshet Eilon, the company he runs, can help them.
Using a sort of high-tech “X-ray” called spectral imaging, Eshet Eilon’s machines report on nutrition information, ripeness, quality, and even when – or whether – a piece of fruit will get ripe.
“Our sorting machines check everything there is to know about fruit — how much sugar, protein, or carbohydrates are in fruit, how ripe it is, whether there are any diseases or fungi, and other information that until now exporters could only guess at,” said Tamir. “Ours is the first fast sorting machine that can check every single piece of fruit that goes into a shipment, ensuring that buyers know what they are getting, and that the fruit shipments don’t get sent back because they aren’t up to standards.”
In today’s market, one piece of fruit can kill a sale worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“One of the biggest problems for date exporters is an internal fungus called Aspergillus niger, a black mold that forms on the inside of a date,” said Tamir. “There is no way a farmer or exporter could know if a date is contaminated. Obviously they can’t open up each date to find out, so they usually take some samples from a shipment to determine the quality. With our system, they can check every date as it passes through the sorting machine, and an alarm will sound when a bad date passes through. Thus, farmers and exporters can be confident that customers won’t send back shipments because they won’t find contaminated fruit.”
Sorting is an essential function in the fruit business. Growers can sell better quality produce for more money, with “better quality” usually defined by color, size, ripeness, lack of bruising, and other external factors. With the Eshet Eilon sorters, said Tamir, growers can now add to that list factors such as sweetness, nutritional information (protein/carbohydrate/fat content), calorie information, and other data – not just with general data for “typical” fruit, but for each specific shipment.
“We can do five tons of produce an hour, checking every single piece of fruit,” said Tamir. “Other systems can do random samples, at best. With this technology, we can sort fruit according to level of sweetness or how long it will take to ripen, presenting buyers with better information that will help their sales. That’s a big value-added for any supermarket or fruit retailer, because they can more easily decide which fruit to put out and which to store for later on, among other things.”
Eshet Eilon pulls off this trick using near-infrared hyperspectral (NIR) imaging, a new system that over the past few years has been used to detect nutritional information in many kinds of fruits and vegetables. Eshet Eilon’s is the first system to implement this technology on a scale that enables wholesalers to check thousands of pieces of fruit at a time.
“There are other systems using this technology, but they are much smaller scale than ours,” said Tamir.
The system was developed by the company in cooperation with Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization (Volcani Institute), based on research by the ARO’s Professor Zeev Schmilovitch.
So far, Eshet Eilon has produced dedicated systems to examine dates, apples, and avocados. The company produces different systems for each type of produce to keep sorting as efficient as possible.
“Some of the examinations are very technical,” said Tamir. “For example, in the avocado sorter we check the fat content of the fruit, which affects its ripening. If avocados are not picked at the right time, they will never ripen properly, so with our system, packers can remove that avocado from a shipment immediately and use it for some other purpose, like making guacamole. For apples, the system can check the sweetness to determine which ones go into a premium shipment, and which ones should be used for applesauce.”
Numerous studies show that consumers prefer to pay more for better quality produce, said Tamir, “and our machines can enable packers to separate the premium from the inferior produce, down to the individual fruit.”
Eshet Eilon is located in Kibbutz Eilon, on Israel’s northern border. The company is Israel’s largest maker of fruit sorting and packing equipment (it has over a dozen patents for unique machines to pack many different kinds of produce), and has customers from around the world.
The new systems were on display last week at Agritech 2015, a major agricultural technology event in Tel Aviv that drew some ten thousand visitors from Israel and abroad.
“We got a lot of inquiries about this at the show,” said Tamir. “An agricultural minister from a large Far Eastern country put in an order for a dozen, right on the spot. As this solution is adopted, I think the quality of fruit in supermarkets is going to get much better.”