Camera lens with red and blue backlight. Macro photography lenses. Horizontal photography
Camera lens with red and blue backlight. Macro photography lenses. Horizontal photography

By Dan Ram, Chairman of Yoran Imaging

For a decade or more, traceability has been a largely aspirational buzzword – a “next big thing” that, despite its obvious advantages, remained over the horizon.

No more. With FDA’s announcement of the initial (and official) Food Traceability List – a subset of the Food Safety Modernization Act – the food industry’s Event Horizon will occur promptly on January 20, 2026. That’s in less than two years. 

Unsurprisingly, the initial list focuses on categories likeliest to cause foodborne illnesses. While the roster of track and trace-mandated items will inevitably expand over time, its first iteration is understandably heavy on produce like leafy vegetables (including ready-to-eat salad mixes), melons, tomatoes, and fresh-cut fruits; soft and semi-soft cheeses; eggs; a variety of fresh and frozen finfish; and most shellfish.

The idea behind mandating reportable traceability systems for these food items is, like traceability itself, transparent: knowing where these products came from can lead to expedited investigation into any adverse events, up to and including widespread foodborne illnesses such as 2009’s spinach recall. It is exceptionally helpful to have a verifiable digital record of where these products are processed and packaged, so that any suspect products can be isolated and discarded with precision. It’s a heck of a lot easier to recall and destroy, say, 200 bags of romaine than 200,000; precision traceability makes this possible, to the benefit of both consumers and brand owners. 

For food companies producing items on the Food Traceability List, then, the “what” (track & trace) and “when” (January 20, 2026) have been answered. What hasn’t been dictated is how. There are a variety of acceptable ways to go about meeting the looming traceability mandates, and for food items housed in heat-sealable packaging, one possibility presents a two-for-one solution that addresses another long-aspirational buzzword: automation. 

The age of thermal imaging inspection and traceability has dawned – and well ahead of the aforementioned Event Horizon. Let’s discuss what it is, and why it’s so valuable.

Suspect inspection

On food production lines around the world, automation has come a long way. Machines are now efficiently and precisely handling tasks previously performed less perfectly by humans. Examples of this can be found both upstream and downstream, in everything from initial processing, sorting and conveying to end-of-line quality control elements like X-ray scanner detection and checkweighing. 

While all this is undoubtedly encouraging, there remains one question to companies across a broad range of F&B categories: 

What about your heat seal?

Sometimes facts seem ridiculous when spelled out in black and white. To that end: It’s 2024, and over 95% of food companies utilizing heat sealed packaging are testing those seals by… pulling one off the line occasionally and looking at it.  

Heat sealing is an incredibly intricate, scenario-specific step along modern packaging lines. Anything from sealing temperature, sealing time, and applied pressure to a package’s individual sealing area and angle can affect a mission-critical element – proper package closure – and lead to discarded product, disgruntled consumers, and disparaged reputations. There’s a lot that can go wrong – and a lot of difficult-to-discover reasons why. 

Well, if you’re inspecting via manual sampling, that is. 

The technology now exists not only to automate filling and heat seal inspection – substantially increasing both accuracy and potential production speeds – but to capture and report that sealing data in a manner that meets pending traceability mandates. 

Think about it: the exact point at which a food item is sealed into its package plays an outsized role in that product’s supply chain journey, as well as its ability to achieve the brand owner’s ultimate goal of customer satisfaction. In this context, a system that can inspect and record for posterity the heat sealing process brings numerous advantages. Not only does it provide brand owners with a record of when and where a product was sealed, but also the conditions under which it was sealed. 

In a landscape where even perishable foods travel great distances to their final destinations, such data amounts to instant insurance against undo accusations of culpability in the case of an adverse event. If the package was airtight, so is a brand owner’s case against any unfair finger-pointing. 

Promisingly, the same data used to comply with forthcoming track and trace rules also yields digestible insight into equipment performance. Thermal imaging brings the potential not only for 100% packaging inspection, but also for comprehensive insight that optimizes production by catching negative trends early, promoting predictive maintenance, avoiding wasted products or packaging materials, and generally doing what the best manufacturing systems do: keep the line moving. 

So how, exactly, does it work? 

Heat-seeking precision

In layman’s terms, thermal imaging technology involves the thorough examination of key heat markers that register as infrared light. The infrared imaging technology has origins in the defense sector, where its benefit is particularly useful for night vision gear. It has since been deployed to various high-leverage sectors including semiconductor fabrication, electronic optics, electronics, image processing, and radiometric analytics. 

Most recently, the new James Webb Space Telescope scans the cosmos with high-resolution infrared cameras to explore previously unseen depths of space – including elusive areas from which visible light cannot reach us. Among other revelations, this has provided glimpses of the nascent universe in the period immediately following the Big Bang.

When trained on closer items, the technology can be stunningly meticulous. For heat seal packaging inspection, it can provide sophisticated, value-added monitoring for an intricate, multifaceted process. It’s “automated quality control plus” – extreme emphasis on the “plus.”

Gatekeeping and regulatory reporting aren’t the only steps essential to sufficient quality control; so is the overall health of the production line. Unfortunately, due in varying degrees to technological hurdles and economic infeasibility, an historic lack of information captured at heat sealing stations has left line operators blind to valuable equipment diagnostic data. For brand owners producing items on the Food Traceability List, though, the countdown to January 2026 can be a revelation disguised as a regulation. 

Simply put: You don’t know what you don’t know – and what you don’t know can indeed hurt. Unknown factors can create anything from a cumbersome production bottleneck to packages that literally come apart at the seams. 

If the devil is in the details, thermal imaging-enabled data metrics mining can be a godsend. When converted into digestible information displayed on operator HMIs, the technology can pinpoint a precise portion of the sealing process that may be experiencing a failure. As a result, detrimental trends can be recognized and reconciled at their inception rather than their unenviable conclusions: line stoppages, rejects, and reworks.

That other “re-“ – recalls – can be unpreventable given the complexities of the supply chain and the inherent fickleness of the items on the Food Traceability List. But what inspection and reporting via thermal imaging can do is provide proof that the problem didn’t originate with the packaging process. In any rush to assign guilt, it offers strong evidence of innocence. Conversely, in the event that the heat sealing process did contribute to a recall-level failure, the traceability data allows brand owners and packagers to determine and decide upon necessary process improvements to avoid such an event in the future.  

Much like automation systems should include value-added benefits, any effort to comply with a new regulation is best served by a “compliance-plus” approach, one that leads not only to surviving but thriving through uplifting extras. Don’t just adopt a system to track and trace something, but rather incorporate a solution that makes the entire process better

Here, thermal imaging-enabled data metrics mining embodies the very essence of predictive maintenance, which requires not only foresight but insight; in a process as multifaceted as heat sealing, operators must not only know that a failure is on the horizon, but exactly what aspect of heat sealing needs to be rectified to prevent that undesirable outcome. Operators get to fix minor issues with ample time to spare, rather than major problems with little or no warning. 

The above-and-beyond benefits – the “plus” in “compliance-plus,” if you will – are obvious. Automated processes more accurately identify sealing integrity issues even while yielding expedited line speeds and, when combined with the additional equipment uptime gained by inline course corrections, the result is more products produced over a given period. Time is money, and products are profits. 

Two conclusions are clear: Food traceability is coming, and sampling simply isn’t good enough anymore. Technological advancements have exponentially improved manufacturing processes up and down modern food production lines. The time has come for heat sealing inspection to join this ever-growing, progress-centric roster while simultaneously meeting current and future FDA mandates. 

Dan Ram is Chairman of Yoran Imaging, which utilizes cutting-edge thermal imaging technology to revolutionize the filling and heat-sealing process on packaging lines. Drawing upon more than two decades of thermal imaging inspection experience, the company’s solutions provide non-invasive, 100% in-line inspection combined with production-optimizing data collection and analysis. 

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