Chapter 43

Corn Quality Confusion: Can NIR help save a corn processing enterprise?

📂 Case overview:The detectives head to China to solve a case regarding the quality of corn at a processing factory. A quality control inspector has found an inconsistency between the declared protein content and the amount of protein in a sample bought at the market. Can the detectives help the desperate client who fears his entire operation could be shut down? Read on to find out.

The detectives were sitting around the office drinking tea and chatting. Miss Mapple and Nancy Beef still could not get over how much food Lieutenant Cornlumbo gouged on over Christmas. Suddenly, Shallot Holmes came crashing through the door, waving a handful of tickets. “Hurry up and finish your tea, detectives; I have an urgent case that requires our attention”, shouted Holmes. “What are those?” asked Eggcule Poirot, pointing at the tickets in his hand. “Ahh, well, you see, detectives. These are tickets to what could be our biggest adventure and mystery to date!”. That got the attention of the detectives, who all gulped down their tea in record time.

Holmes went on to explain that he had a client in China who had heard about the detective’s work! The client ran a corn processing enterprise but had run into an issue that could see the entire operation shut down. A local quality control inspector had tested the protein content of some corn bought from the client’s company, but the protein content did not match what had been declared on the packaging. This was a serious offense and could cause huge reputational damage to the client, who could not understand how the discrepancy occurred. Out of desperation, the client contacted the detectives to solve the mystery. Holmes explained to the detectives that protein content influenced the price of corn used to feed livestock. High-protein corn provides more nutritional value and, thus, commands a higher price. Having finished their tea, the detectives headed to the airport, their heads full of questions and ideas. On the flight, the detectives discussed different protein determination methods and recalled previous cases involving quality control.

On arriving at the client’s processing enterprise, the detectives were eager to find out what methods of protein determination were used. The client told the detectives that they used the Kjeldahl method for quality control and to determine the protein content of their corn. The detectives seemed confused as this method should yield very accurate results and wouldn’t account for the discrepancy. Lieutenant Cornlumbo asked about when the client performed the protein analysis – he had a hunch that the analysis may have been performed before the corn had been stored. He had read that corn stored in a damp environment may cause the protein content to decrease. The client explained that the corn was tested at random intervals just before going to market. This ruled out Cornlumbo’s’ theory.

Nancy Beef then came forward and asked for more details regarding the random intervals. “Just how random is the testing? Do you test weekly, once per crop?” She asked. Her thinking was that not enough corn was being tested, which could explain the inconsistency. Nancy Beef was keen to find out more and asked to speak to the people responsible for testing the corn. The client took her to the person in charge of performing the protein analysis. Nancy approached the person in charge and began to interrogate them but was unhappy with the answers she received. “Would you be able to perform an analysis for me now so that I can better understand your methods?” She asked. “Umm, err, yes, I, err, of course,” they said. Nancy Beef watched with the eyes of a hawk as the analysis was performed, but it didn’t take long for her to realize exactly what had occurred. Nancy returned to the client and the detectives to tell them what she had discovered.

Nancy explained that the Kjeldahl analysis performed had given very accurate results, just as the detectives had predicted. The problem was not the method but the sample! The sample used came from one batch that had arrived that day; however, this large corn processing factory received several batches that day. Nancy investigated further and discovered that corn was processed from multiple sites. The random and sporadic testing did not accurately depict all the corn received. Nancy’s suspicions were confirmed, and the corn tested had a lower content than what was being reported. The client was very grateful to the detectives but also eager to prevent this from happening again and asked the detectives if they had any further advice. As you can imagine, the detectives had many suggestions; They told the client that using NIR for protein analysis would give results within a minute, unlike the current method that took hours to complete. A rapid analysis means that every batch can be tested and accurately labeled; this would also highlight which batches have a lower protein content and lead to further investigation into why there was a discrepancy. The client was also advised to have more control over the process to maximize profits. By using NIR analysis, changes can be implemented immediately. The client was very happy and went on to install NIR at critical production stages for quality control. They also promised to report back to the detectives about how the transition went.

Before leaving, the detectives shared with the client details of previous cases whereby they had saved clients huge sums of money by implementing NIR in their process. The detectives all congratulated Nancy Beef for her keen eye and powers of deduction. They decided to celebrate by making the most of their time in China, and Lieutenant Cornlumbo immediately suggested that they go somewhere for dinner to taste some local types of protein sources.