Chances are you’ve seen this tomato-sorting machine before. Video footage of it goes viral on a semi-regular basis, as with this clip above, tweeted by @MachinePix this week. As mechanical contraptions go, it’s impressively fast and unnervingly precise. It’s sorting tomatoes, but it looks like the fingers of God flicked damned souls straight into hell.
It is also, according to Jim Frost, product manager at Tomra, the company that makes the thing, old hat. “We’ve been selling these machines for 25 years now,” he tells The Verge in a phone interview. “This particular sorter is sort of the mother of all sorters. It’s quite basic, and gets used out in the field.”
Tomra (and lots of other companies) sell sorters like this around the world for all types of produce. They sort everything from peaches and potatoes to grapes and grains — some 60 percent of processed food gets sorted this way, guesses Frost. There’s a line of optical sensors looking down onto the conveyor belt and a row of “rejectors” positioned like teeth on a comb just below. “We use the finger-type rejectors for larger produce, and air rejectors for smaller stuff,” says Frost.
During this time farmers can’t afford to any stoppages. The tomatoes are ripe and need to be tinned or canned within 24 hours. Frost says this is why he actually prefers preserved tomatoes to ‘fresh’ ones. If they’ve been canned, he says, that means they were ripening in the sun until the very last minute and have more flavor because of it. “Canneries get a bad press, but it’s one of the few foods that has as little additives in it as possible,” he says. “There’s salt, tomato juice, and tomatoes. That’s it.”
As for why clips like this go viral, Frost isn’t surprised. He says most people just don’t know how common technology like this is. “This particular footage impresses so many people,” he says. “We have people come in — customers who we’ve been dealing with years — and they see the thing actually happening and they say ‘Oh my god that’s unbelievable!’ and I tell them ‘We’ve been doing this for 20 years, where were you?’”