Bird is the word

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Bird is the word
Kookaburra has been on a spending spree to spruce up its operation, as Rod Addy finds out

Poultry meat processing isn't usually renowned for being the cleanest wing if you'll pardon the pun of food and drink processing. For all the high standards, it's generally a struggle to keep plants looking ship-shape.

Not so for Peterlee-based Kookaburra Foods in County Durham. Stroll into the factory there and you'd be forgiven for thinking you were witnessing its first day of operation. Not only are the floors and walls kept scrupulously clean, but it's packed full of gleaming equipment and there's minimal clutter from waste trays.

Much of this stems from the influence of md Tony Gilroy, who joined the business last year. Since his arrival the company has seen an injection of capital and know-how that has focused on improving waste handling and efficiency.

To be precise, with a similar amount earmarked for 2010-2011, more than £800,000 has been spent on a roll out of new kit since last October alone. The bulk of this cash around 65% was supplied by Barclays, with Kookaburra stumping up the rest. The investment in the last financial year began with new chilling and freezing equipment.

Aside from its core business of poultry meat processing, Kookaburra can supply cooked, diced meat under contract for manufacturers supplying soups, pies, pizzas and ready meals. After it's processed and chilled on the premises, this meat can be quick frozen at temperatures of -196°C on the BOC Cryoline Super Contact cryogenic freezing line using vaporised liquid nitrogen.

Material is conveyed on disposable plastic film through the freezing tunnel rather than on the belt to avoid sticking and prevent belt marks and wrinkles on products. It is then sieved and can be supplied to customers for inclusion in frozen dishes.

Other temperature controlled facilities include a £77,000 blast freezing unit, which adds to existing chillers that can chill products from oven-hot to below five degrees Celsius in one hour. That's versus the industry standard of four hours.

Chilling has also been upgraded at the post-cook stage for boneless meat and roasted chickens, giving greater temperature security.

In another move, Kookaburra redesigned its two main cooking systems to give separate process flows from raw material to high risk areas after chilling.

It's not just the processing side that has been brought up to speed by the latest kit. Many of the innovations have been on the hygiene and cleaning side. Antibacterial, high care floors were incorporated in December, while a positive pressure air handling system preventing airborne contamination of the high care area was introduced in January.

Perhaps the new feature with the most impact is the £105,000 bespoke Provac Systems vacuum waste handling system, which was also commissioned at the beginning of this year. The installation has substantially cut water and chemical costs for cleaning as well as waste treatment costs. Waste is swept or emptied into three hoppers, where it is diverted through ducts specially designed to prevent clogging to the waste trailer rather than into the drains.

"There's no carrying bin bags and dropping bits," says Gilroy. The machine frees up staff dedicated to cleaning to be used elsewhere and has eliminated the use of forklift trucks to carry waste. It has also freed up a lot of production floor space previously occupied by waste trays and bins, which can be dedicated to new product lines.

Elsewhere, a high care tray wash machine was installed in February that cleans trays at 65-70°C. "They come off clinically clean and we've reduced wash-down water use by 45%," says Gilroy.

A host of other innovations were commissioned in January, from a component meats department to cater for Kookaburra's expanding ready meal and pizza client base to a Marel intelligent portion cutter. The Marel machine can be programmed to adjust to a variety of portion sizes for a sequence of orders, making changeovers less of a headache.

In the same month, a hand bone inspection conveyor was installed. "Most customers specify a limit of two bones per tonne, but we have a target of zero," says Gilroy. There's an X-ray machine in place as well, but he says it won't pick up everything, so hand inspection is an excellent back-up.

In addition, a Double D searer brander, costing £130,000, was installed at the end of January. "It gives a charring effect to the top of the poultry meat, so you can sear or bar mark it or both. It meets customer requirements to add value. We have handled about six or seven tonnes of seared chicken a week since January," says Gilroy. He says Kookaburra can sear plain meat or marinade it first, adding: "We can vary the effect by slowing the belt down or speeding it up or using sugar in the marinade to caramelise the product."

The latest addition has been a product development kitchen, which was opened in March and in which Kookaburra can work with its customers to create new product lines. "We have a Convotherm oven that can use steam injection and dry heat with phenomenal airflow to do all that the factory can do," says Gilroy. There are plans to invest further in cooking technology in the coming year.

Beefing up the headcount

It's not just the factory that is receiving an overhaul. Having got his feet under the desk, Gilroy beefed up the headcount with the addition of Christine Dunn as head of technical and Lyndsey Castle as business development manager.

Gilroy sees all this upheaval as more than worth it to fulfil Kookaburra's growth strategy, with a key focus being the foodservice arena. "Less than 10% of our business is in foodservice," says Gilroy. "There are big opportunities there for us, especially as clients look towards food made closer to home. We've picked up contracts recently on Red Tractor certified products."

Kookaburra, which sources 95% of its product from the UK and EU, is well-placed to cater for the growing interest in food security and local sourcing, he says. Especially as emerging markets, particularly China, siphon off international supplies. In particular, local authorities and schools agencies are "moving towards more recognition of British food".

It's all a far cry from where the company began in December 1988 with founder Geoff Herbert. UK-born Herbert worked in the beef and sheep meat export industry in Australia for 14 years before returning, having resolved to apply Australia's high food processing standards to the industry over here. Hence, in case you were wondering, the Kookaburra name the kookaburra being a carnivorous bird of the kingfisher family native to Australia and New Guinea.

Company Statistics

Factory size​: 223m2

Products​: Own label and branded component meats: raw, ready-to-cook and cooked boneless chicken, turkey, duck breast and thigh meat, whole chicken and turkey, chicken and duck portions; boneless beef, lamb and pork; stock, fats, paste and skin; capability for slicing, dicing, mincing, marinading, char grilling, bar marking, chilling and freezing

Customers​: Retailers, manufacturers and foodservice businesses

Capacity​: 90t a week

Output​: 65t a week, 5 days a week, two shifts a day

Turnover​: £10m

Staff​: 122 full time


2001: The chicken factory was upgraded to provide a modern cooked meat production unit.

2006: The chicken factory was redeveloped to improve cooking capacity and refine downstream processes. The facility was expanded to include beef, pork and lamb.

2008: The sandwich and snack food factory was closed as the market entered a downturn.

Related topics: Meat, poultry & seafood

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