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 company's AirForce impingement oven is designed to overcome that challenge with uniform airflow and heating across the width of the product conveyor. Air flows evenly from pressurized air reservoirs and nozzles above and below the product zone to ensure all product uniformly reaches the same safe core temperature. This eliminates the need to overcook to compensate for low temperature areas.

The system's computer controls can be used to customize sanitation, with cleaning time and chemical use automated to meet varying product requirements. For example, Kozenski explains that cleaning requirements are "very different" for a batter-breaded product than they are for a glazed chicken wing. "For the glazed wing, you would typically design the cleaning cycle for a worst-case scenario, whereas with a breaded product for example cleaning requirements won't be as difficult."

The oven's controls use a recipe-driven system that prompts the operator to add predetermined amounts of chemicals, and from there it automatically adds predetermined amounts of water and sets different run times for the various sanitation cycles. "This technology not only ensures safe processing but can reduce chemical and water usage and even contribute to sustainable goals by minimizing wastewater," Kozenski says.

From turnkey lines for large-scale operations down to equipment for small plants, suppliers offer features for processors of all sizes. Even in a small plant, swing-open designs on saws from Hollymatic (www.hollymatic.com), Countryside, Ill., are "very easy to clean or replace blades because the tables don't come off, they swing open," says Rob Kovacik, manager of sales and marketing. "And the easier it is to clean equipment when you're going from beef to pork to lamb, the faster you can clean it." The company's roots are in the retail meat department; currently, about 60 percent of the company's machines are used at small to medium plants supplying them.

Wash up!
Standards, including the Safe Quality Foods Initiative, are higher than government requirements in many areas, including hand- and boot-washing, notes Michele Colbert, vice president of sales and marketing at Meritech (www.meritech.com). The Golden, Colo., company provides automated washers for workers to sanitize the point of entry into processing rooms.

She says "more and more" processors are implementing such systems either as a part of HACCP plans or broader standards, because traditional traffic (floor) sanitizers can be messy and hard to contain without being tracked though the plant.

Upgrades and recession notwithstanding, Colbert says companies have tight budgets every year, "but every year there is still money set aside to improve employee hygiene practices. Rules are getting more stringent and companies are getting cited."

Systems aren't justified in a vacuum; Colbert says plants owned by Cargill, Nestle, ConAgra and others have taken a 30-second hand-washing process down to 12 seconds, and with better results. "A large plant can get 300 or 400 employees clean and on the plant floor, and in 75 percent less time." The largest integrated systems can handle hand washing and boot scrubbing for 20 employees per minute and pay for themselves in a month.

And while there's also a "green" water-conserving element to such systems, she notes processors are primarily motivated by operational issues. "They're under more pressure to provide safer and higher-quality food now more than ever."

It's up to companies to do things right and pre-empt the critics who say the industry cuts corners in a recession.

Colbert says she shudders when she finds meat plants that allow employees to wear unsanitary lace-up boots; that use hand-gel sanitizers instead of water-washing, "which just rubs blood around"; and cuts back management to the point where the plant manger temporarily replaces the quality assurance manager, even if he isn't qualified to manage a HACCP plan.

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