A New-Age of Protein Processing

Cooking may be an art, but meat and poultry processing is necessarily a science. Fortunately for food companies, there’s a support network that’s advancing the science.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

Process control begins with measurement, and protein processors are finding new ways to measure and then control process outcomes and optimize cost savings.

Least cost formulation (LCF) long has been used in food and beverage processing to set targets and constraints for variables such as fat and moisture content in a batch. Applying LCF to products such as meatballs and hamburger patties can be challenging, however, because of the unreliability of extrapolating the properties of a large quantity of ground beef on the basis of random samples.

Software improvements can surmount the challenge, insists Richard Hebel, product manager-FA at Eagle Product Inspection, Tampa, Fla. He cites the analytics behind dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) to support his claim.

Visual evaluation of the fat-to-lean content of ground beef was the traditional method used in industry. Depending on the skill of the person eyeballing the meat, visual lean estimates might be off 5 percent, says Hebel. In recent years, DEXA has carved out a niche with packinghouses by delivering a precise chemical lean measure for an entire batch of beef trim, while also performing inspection duties. The precision is important to avoid penalties assessed by grinders who receive trim with too much fat or, alternatively, from including too much lean in a shipment and therefore giving away protein.

With the recent release of the third generation of DEXA, Hebel boasts the analytics now can provide a precise measure of moisture, as well. Customers like McDonald’s give grinders “literally dozens” of specs, including fat, protein and moisture content. By giving the grinders data on one more variable, packinghouses can help those grinders reduce waste and rework and achieve LCF.

Rutgers Food Innovation Center

Technician Dot Hall tends to a 42-gallon sauce kettle at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, N.J. The center’s “kitchen incubator” has helped the Flying Meatballs and other start-up food companies develop USDA-compliant processes and fill customer orders until they could justify opening their own production facilities.

Helping established processors improve their bottom lines drives much of the R&D work by suppliers. New food processors usually have to fend for themselves, and as the complexity of food production increases, a higher proportion of start-ups are floundering.

Helping start-ups navigate market entry is one of the missions at the Rutgers Food Innovation Center, part of the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers University. The Bridgeton, N.J., center features a “kitchen incubator” service to help start-ups both test and produce retail and foodservice products in four USDA- and FDA-inspected processing rooms on either a daily rental or long-term basis. Acting Director H. Louis Cooperhouse points to several successful launches since the program’s inception, among them the Flying Meatballs.

Learning to fly

Chef and restaurateur Natale Grande came to the center in early 2012, armed with a recipe for tennis ball-sized meatballs and little else. Center personnel, most with processing backgrounds with firms like nearby Campbell Soup Co., mentored Grande on business and technical requirements, such as good manufacturing practices and the need to develop a HACCP plan.

“Production under USDA regulations requires a much higher level of documentation of all your procedures and the controls in place,” points out Cooperhouse. “Taking restaurant-style foods into industrial production requires a much more rigorous approach.”

Grande used the kitchen incubator to migrate his sauce recipe from kitchen to industrial production, developing the consistency and color foodservice and retail customers expect and scaling up from a 20-gallon kettle to 200-gallon batches.

Once commercial production began, the Meatballs crew made use of a 1,500-sq.-ft. packaging room and a 2,500-sq.-ft. production area at the center. Sales volume eventually justified acquisition of production space closer to Grande’s home base in Whippany, N.J. Last summer, the firm “graduated” from the center and now produces all products in northern New Jersey.

Center staff guided Grande in the purchase of grinders and forming equipment, which the Meatballs team moved in and out of the center on the days they were in production. Although the company’s website claims the meatballs are hand-made, that would be neither efficient or advisable for industrial-scale production. “You might want intentional inconsistency from a former,” allows Cooperhouse, “but you want consistent color, weight and safe production.”

Whether a machine is forming meatballs or patties, mechanical energy beats up food and results in a consistency that’s the opposite of a hand-made look. Hydraulic forming machines are great for mass-producing hamburger patties, concedes Scott Cummings, regional sales manager with Robert Reiser & Co. Inc., Canton, Mass., but the patties resemble “little hockey pucks.” A low-pressure forming system makes it much more likely muscle fibers in the meat won’t be abused, "and that means everything in forming meat,” Cummings says.

Three components comprise Reiser’s forming system: a positive-displacement pump, an in-line grinder and a low-pressure former that reduces compression and allows more air to remain in the meat. For moderate to low-volume production, as at Flying Meatballs, a simple guillotine between the grinder and the former portions the meat. In high-throughput operations, a servo cut-off device is used. In either case, a one-piece shaping blank determines the meat’s final shape, be it a round meatball, disc-shaped patty or cylindrical loaf.

“Changeovers literally take a couple of minutes,” Cummings asserts, unlike systems with “a lot of nuts and bolts and plungers.”

CEO chicken comparison

Spiral ovens save floor space but typically didn’t cook meat with eye appeal, an issue Heat and Control addressed by incorporating a browning element. Photo: Heat and Control Inc.

If the hand-made look is a trend, so is fully cooked meat. This presents a problem for space-constrained processors who rely on spiral ovens to do the cooking. A spiral’s compact footprint makes it an attractive option for high-capacity cooking, but meat color can lack eye appeal. To address the issue, Heat and Control Inc., Hayward, Calif., developed CEO, shorthand for Color Enhancing Oven. The oven delivers controlled browning on both sides of a product without disrupting throughput in high-volume cooking.

“After listening to our customers and spending months on R&D testing, Heat and Control has developed a color-enhancement system that applies browning at the optimal point in the cooking process,” according to James Padilla. “Now our customers have the control to develop color on both sides of products while enjoying all the benefits of high capacity, high yield cooking in a limited floor space.”

PLC control provides repeatable browning and cooking of multiple products, and steam, dry heat or a combination of the two can be used to cook. Moisture-controlled air is distributed in a 360-degree pattern for uniform heating across all tiers of the spiral.

Moisture loss degrades product quality post-cooking, making flash freezing the go-to option for many processors. Given the cost of carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas, efficient application of cryogens helps control processors’ costs.

Bottom injection of cryogen can lower operating costs 5-15 percent and reduce cycle times, but most chillers apply the gas from the top, notes Mark DiMaggio, head of food & beverage at Linde, Murray Hill, N.J. “It’s much easier to put a snow cone on the top of a mixer, but from an empirical standpoint, you get out a lot more BTUs with bottom injection,” he points out.

After focusing on the beef segment of the protein market, Linde introduced a bottom-injection solution for poultry applications early this year.

Lowering costs and enhancing quality are priorities throughout the food industry. Meat and poultry processors are no exception, and a network of R&D services, equipment suppliers and others is helping them achieve those goals.

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