Meat and poultry: Make it fast, keep it safe

Amid recession, recalls and regulations, plants make strides to marry safety with efficiency gains.

By Bob Sperber, Plant Operations Editor

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The recession led 40 percent of retail shoppers to seek cheaper products at the meat case. That's lower than the 50 percent of shoppers who have pared spending overall, but it still bodes poorly for meat, poultry and seafood processors seeking to add value to commodity products.

The findings, jointly published in March by the American Meat Institute and Food Marketing Institute and sponsored by Sealed Air's Cryovac Food Packaging Div., indicate a move toward cheaper products and less brand loyalty. While that only increases the pressure on plants to operate with utmost throughput and efficiency and minimal waste, it's also critical for processors to combat any perception that during a recession they aren't cutting corners in their food safety programs.

"The food industry is low-margin, and costs are always important," says John Surak, principal of Surak and Associates (www.stratecon-intl.com/jsurak.html), Clemson, S.C. "But no matter what, food safety is Job 1, quality is Job 2, and you're always concerned about both. So when you're designing a line or making upgrades, you build food safety and quality into the process. The food processor must have a food safety and quality culture first, so you never cut corners."

Part of his job is consulting with processors to get them ready for third-party audits to food safety standards. In addition to being a consultant and professor emeritus at Clemson University, Surak led the U.S. delegation that helped develop the ISO 22000 international food safety standard.

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He's also the former vice president of quality and food safety for Brooks Food Group and oversaw two food processing facilities, one an FDA-regulated plant and the other an FSIS-regulated facility. As such, he recommends processors know their safety plans inside and out. "I already knew where the potential issues were, and I wanted to see if the auditor would identify the issues and report them. I was already working on the corrective actions before the audit."

No leading and few responsible processors will find this advice extreme; customers have long insisted on standards more stringent than the laws require.

Equipment fosters sanitation
While processing and packaging equipment suppliers don't directly manage food safety risks, the way their equipment is designed can go a long way to foster sanitation, especially to inhibit microbial growth. Cleanability has become a major issue to help speed sanitation, whether the plant asset can be wiped, hosed, pressure-washed or cleaned-in-place. Some basic features and strategies processors call upon suppliers to help with include:

  • Minimizing human interaction to eliminate sources of risk.
  • Offering antimicrobial agents – for workers, equipment and packages.
  • Minimizing horizontal ledges where debris or pathogens can collect.
  • Maximizing access to all food contact areas for easy cleaning.
  • Ensuring that equipment such as cookers evenly heat product to ensure commercial sterility.
  • Offering sanitary stainless steel motors and gearboxes to eliminate paint and to withstand wash-downs.
  • Using new sanitary conveyor belting materials and accessibility options for easier cleaning.
  • Using quick-release connectors and other means to reduce the tools needed for cleaning and changeover.
  • Adding computer controls and operator stations at the line for greater automation of cleaning protocols.

"We're doing more open designs for better inspection as cleaning is taking place," says Jeff Walker, director of business opportunities for food equipment operation at Sealed Air's Cryovac division (www.sealedair.com), Duncan, S.C. This includes more open designs such as see-through and perforated guards. Mechanical components, such as sections of conveyor lines, lift for more accessibility during cleaning.

For example, he cites a bag loader (Model BL 101) that has a modular belt that allows the line to cycle if necessary. On the reduction of tools on the plant floor, he says this lets users dissemble equipment for more thorough cleaning as well as a reducing the risk of loose pieces and parts on the plant floor. Such features are included in an infeed system (Model 8604) specifically redesigned for the ready-to-eat processed meat. Quick releases on equipment like this turn minutes of loosening bolts into seconds. "It might not seem like a lot, but when you've got a certain amount of time to clean the plant, it adds up," he says.

Walker says the company also has integrated third-party antimicrobial spray systems for use in Cryovac bags as well as using post-packaging pasteurization. Even further downstream, some processors use ovenable bags for raw or precooked meats, reducing risks directly at the consumer end point.
Cooking is of course at the heart of safe processing, from retorts to fryers to ovens, where uneven temperatures can affect not just safety but quality, throughput and yield.

"One of the big problems prepared foods processors have faced for years is uneven airflow in their ovens," says Doug Kozenski, processing systems sales manager at Heat and Control (www.heatandcontrol.com), Hayward, Calif. For example if there is less airflow on the left side of the belt than on the right, "It's going to take product on the left side longer to reach the required temperature, while product on the right side will be overcooked," he says. "This will result in longer cook times and lost yield."

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