Ever since people started to talk about 'value chains' instead of just 'supply chains' and 'adding value' rather than mundane 'processing', the pressure has been on for companies to squeeze the most out of their products and lines.
Helpfully, there are increasing options available in terms of pack formats, product presentation and shelf-life management.
Some trends in packaging reflect the greater prominence being given to the issue of food waste among consumers. Says Jim Campbell, general manager for sales and marketing at Multivac: "Rather than buying a pack of five or six chicken breasts, or steaks, with the pressure to use them all up at once, consumers are increasingly able to buy them individually vacuum-packed inside a mother-bag." This makes it easier for households to freeze the remaining food that goes beyond their immediate needs.
Vacuum packing has other benefits. "Shelf-life can typically be extended to 14 or even 21 days, compared with seven to 10 days inside a tray," says Campbell. "The flexible film can also be up to 70% lighter than a pre-formed tray." Asda and Costco are among the retailers that have moved in this direction.
Because the product is fully enclosed, pre-prepared dishes such as steaks in a sauce, marinade or seasoning can continue to mature inside the pack, he continues. This is true, for instance, of Sainsbury's Jamie Oliver range of prepared meats.
For poultry, the film used is likely to be a standard nylon/polyethylene laminate, says Campbell. But with steaks, and other products with special barrier needs, the film of choice is likely to be Sealed Air Cryovac's Darfresh.
The latter is also used in skin-to-foil ranges which Multivac is able to pack in its tray-sealers. Here, a complete meal is sealed to a foil tray. The film can be peeled off, and the dish put straight into the oven. This way, complex arrangements such as a chicken breast with a garnish of bacon, sauce or a knob of butter can be attractively - and securely - arranged.
"Unlike with a tray/MAP [modified atmosphere packaging] combination, this format can be displayed vertically, and shelf-life will be longer," says Campbell, adding that several meat processors are looking at this system as a way of diversifying their ranges.
Multivac works with process and handling equipment companies on other multi-portion options. Interfood Technologies supplies, among other systems, Weber slicing equipment. Md Jim Sydenham explains that its Designer CCU technology for arranging sliced prepared meat can be fitted to the out-feed of different output Weber slicers.
One option is a twin-compartment or multi-compartment tray, formed on a Multivac thermoformer and then loaded with product from Interfood's Designer CCU. The system's multi-axis ABB pick-and-place robots arrange the slices into preset patterns, before they are fed into different pockets of the same tray, which is then sealed. As Sydenham says: "With a single, bulk pack, there is more chance that meat will go off. But this way, the consumer can buy one pack that is separated into two or more sealed sections."
The Designer CCU is also able to provide multiple options for stacked, shingled and folded slices in the attractive arrangements increasingly requested by retailers and brand owners. As Sydenham points out, Marks & Spencer is among those retailers to have picked up on a popular European trend for arranging product around a circular platter-style tray. The idea, he says, is that the consumer can simply peel off the lidding film and put the tray straight on to the table.
Marel group company AEW Delford has a number of automation options brought together under the banner of its PolyLine, PortionLine and BaconLine. Marketing consultant Terry Starkey says: "Our IPL Robot is extremely versatile, and can produce a wide range of product presentations, such as folded groups, shingles or slices, that cannot be formed by conventional hard automation."
AEW Delford emphasises the reduction in the time that product is exposed between slicing and packing, and the lack of manual handling. Both of these can enhance shelf-life, says Starkey.
The company cites the example of Dong Won Food & Beverage in South Korea, which has installed a line including its PolySlicer 3000 Vision, G2300 checkweigher and IPL Robot. Different orientations are possible for shingled product, so that full-width bacon can be placed in-line with the product flow, for instance, or half-width bacon placed at 90° to it.
The themes of reducing product exposure, reducing operator handling and maximising shelf-life are taken up by Reiser. Md Peter Mellon highlights the benefits of the latest Vemag Duo high-speed mince line, capable of producing packs up to 140 x 500g per minute, either in pre-formed trays or in the pocket of a thermoformer.
Cooler mince, longer shelf-life
"We can take primary ground product at 10mm and load this into the hopper of the Vemag as cold as -2°C, and do the final grind in the Vemag system," says Mellon. Earlier systems could not accept product below +2°C. "The difference could be one additional day of shelf-life." The Duo has the much higher power and torque required for processing at this lower temperature.
Since there is no need for a secondary grinder, with the Vemag combining grinding and forming in a single step, the process is further streamlined, says Mellon. Systems are already running in the UK and the rest of Europe, he adds. But automation is not always the answer in this sector, particularly where presentation is of prime importance. Game bird specialist Braehead Foods has established a new 1,115m2 production facility in Kilmarnock, capable of processing up to 10,000 birds a year, from grouse and partridge to woodcock and pheasant.
Md Craig Stevenson emphasises: "Game processing is a very manual operation. Hand-cut is better quality than machine-cut, but you can't get the same volume. I'd rather keep volume down to safeguard quality, while at the same time introducing some automation wherever I can."
So, for example, before final packing, the birds are trussed, arranged and garnished manually on the tray. Similarly, after the earlier plucking stage, a hot wax tank is used to coat the birds and remove any last traces of feathers. "We make sure that every last feather is off the bird. It used to be acceptable to have the odd one here and there," he says. But today's retail is all about appeal, convenience and impulse, he says.
Ishida supplies equipment which allows meat and poultry processors to make similar trade-offs between, on the one hand, the efficiency that comes with automation and, on the other, manual quality and flexibility. Its weigh-batcher presents pre-weighed batches of product to manual operators for packing into trays or other containers.
"The challenge is not about damage - as it might be with ripe strawberries, for instance," says marketing manager Torsten Giese. "It's about presentation. In 10 years, say, we may have a system that is able to discharge chicken portions into a tray easily and reliably, but for now, that's not the case."
The weigh-batcher is fed from a single multi-head weigher, reducing giveaway to less than 1g per pack, says Ishida. With eight operators, trays can be filled and sealed at speeds of up to 50 packs per minute. As soon as the operator has placed the completed tray on the 'out' belt for sealing, a new batch arrives for packing.
Giese admits that, for some kinds and cuts of meat, there are ways, for example, of using laser cutting and then cascading the pieces directly into a tray. But where more irregular pieces are being handled, judgement and aesthetics at the packing stage can play a major role in shelf-appeal. "It comes down to psychology, and the fact that the consumer is more likely to buy product which is neatly packed," he says.
One of the triggers for the launch of the weigh-batcher, says Ishida, was the development of the screw-feeder multi-head weigher, designed to handle sticky product, such as fresh meat and poultry.
Coatings extend options
Ingredients, as well as further processing and packing technologies, can play their part in extending a processor's options. At supplier S Black, technical sales manager Rob Hulme points out the benefits of Scangold: a product based on caramelised glucose syrup which "doesn't fall into the category of either a flavour or a colour"
By reacting with food proteins, the ingredient triggers the Maillard reaction at lower temperatures than normal (50-52°C). Energy costs can be reduced, and factory throughput can be increased by faster browning times, the company points out.
Hulme says he has carried out trials with Sealed Air Cryovac's Darfresh film, coating chicken drumsticks in Scangold, sealing them in the film and cooking in a microwave. Still inside the film, the chicken browned nicely in as little as three minutes, he says.
On sausages, too, says Hulme, as well as improved aesthetics, the product can give more 'bite' to the skin where collagen casings are used. And on honey-roast ham, blending the honey with Scangold can help it to adhere as the temperature rises, and cook more quickly, he reports. FM
X-rays ensure chicken fillets are free of all bones
The installation of two Ishida X-ray inspection systems at the Rose Poultry factory in Skovsgaard, Denmark, has fully automated the previously manual process of checking chicken fillets for bones and enabled 10 operators to be re-deployed.
Checking for small pieces of bones can be an arduous manual task. The Ishida IX-GA-2475 X-ray machines now carry out the operation automatically, detecting the smallest pieces of bone, at speeds of up to 160 fillets per minute. The X-ray system is self-learning to ensure maximum detection sensitivity and reliability. The machine can detect impurities down to 0.3mm in size and spot missing items or damaged products. The place of contamination can be accurately pinpointed.
Contact: Ishida Europe Tel: 0121 607 7700
Ohmic heater to pre-treat animal by-products
C-Tech Innovation is developing a small-scale, low-cost heating system for pre-treating animal by-products, enabling their safe disposal.
In ohmic, or direct resistance, heating, an electric current is passed directly through the material enabling the rapid and uniform heating of both liquids and particulates. Traditionally, ohmic heating is used for soups, dairy products, fruit products, ready meals, and casseroles.
But C-Tech says it can also be used for heating sludge and slurries with a high solids content. The advantages for animal by-products are minimal maintenance and the ability to handle any pumped fluid.
Working with Bioplex, an anaerobic digestion company, C-Tech is currently trialing the system. The ohmic heating system is more energy efficient than traditional heating methods, being around 95% efficient. In addition, the heating of the animal waste is more uniform. This is critical for meeting Animal Byproducts Regulations that require all waste be heated to a minimum of 133°C for 20 minutes.
Contact: C-Tech Innovation Tel: 0151 347 2900KEY Contacts ABB 01908 350300AEW Delford 01603 700755Braehead Foods 01563 550008 Interfood Technologies 01844 217676Ishida 0121 6077700Multivac 01793 425800 Reiser 01908 585300 S Black 01992 825555 Sealed Air Cryovac 01480 224000