Polar Vortex in the Plant: Refrigeration Options for Food Manufacturers

Price and performance of refrigerants is giving food processors reason to re-evaluate their existing systems and consider new refrigeration options.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Scanico specializes in food-product installations, using stainless-steel construction since its founding in 1972. Although its systems can be found in 49 countries, North America is virgin territory, and Colding expects the deal to benefit both organizations. The biggest beneficiaries may be food processors, who now will be able to leverage Scanico’s patented systems for IQF impingement freezing, says Perkins.

Impingement freezing also takes a step forward with a modular system from C.A.T. Inc., a Russellville, Ark., firm whose initials stand for Cooling and Applied Technology. Poultry processing is C.A.T.’s strong suit, and helping those food companies retain ingredients and moisture in further-processed chicken products is a major focus. That drove development of the firm’s FreezeCAT, an ammonia impingement system that crust freezes both the top and bottom of products.

The modular freezer -- four units can crust up to 10,000 lbs. of product per hour -- was designed with raw, marinated chicken in mind, C.A.T.’s Andy Townsend says. Typically, it’s positioned after marinade is applied and before product goes into a spiral freezer. Crusting is done with bottom impingement to prevent belt marks from forming on the product.

However, marinade and product moisture still can evaporate from the top of individually quick frozen items. C.A.T.’S design utilizes a plate freezer on the bottom and cones that run the width of the belt on top, locking in moisture and juices before the product enters the spiral.

FreezeCAT system

Top and bottom freezing is accomplished in C.A.T.’s FreezeCAT system, with product riding on a plate freezer while cones designed to recirculate air blasting the top of the product.

Placing pallet loads of cased entrees in a room with a blast cell was the conventional way frozen meals were handled post-filling and pre-warehousing, though dwell times could stretch to days, according to Joseph Vozella, sales director with GEA Refrigeration North America-Intec, Durham, N.C. Product quality suffers, however, and microbial growth that occurs before the core temperature dips below 40 degrees Fahrenheit poses a food safety issue.

Single retention time freezers can speed up the case freezing process considerably, though cases can’t move through any faster than the slowest-freezing cased product. Variable retention time (VRT) systems are engineered to freeze multiple case sizes at speeds that fit each product’s freeze profile, though only the highest volume processors have been able to cost-justify VRT -- until now.

GEA’s VRT-1000 carton freezer and chiller is a downsized version of the VRT-3000, which can handle up to 80,000 lbs. of finished goods an hour. The VRT-1000 operates in the 8,000-10,000 lb. range but has the same technical platform and heavy-duty construction. The system typically operates at -32°F and wind velocities of 1,200 ft. a minute. As many as eight lines can feed into the system, Vozella says.

He expects the smaller version will help poultry processors to tap into a booming export market for dark meat. “If they could raise a chicken without legs, they would do it because white meat is what the American consumer prefers,” Vozella observes. Instead of settling for a commodity price for almost half of the yield, processors are getting premium prices from markets such as Russia, the Middle East and Israel. Offshore buyers expect premium product for premium prices, and a VRT can help manufacturers meet quality specs for freeze time.

The economics of refrigeration are constantly changing, with the higher cost of some refrigerants offset by higher value from some processes. That elasticity can be a game-changer when it comes to cost-justifying new technology or determining which refrigerant to use.

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