Meat and Poultry Still at the Heart of Protein Craze

Plants may provide analogues or protein of their own, but America still loves its meat.

By Food Processing Staff

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Tyson (www.tyson.com) has said that by June, all of its retail chicken products will be raised without the use of antibiotics. That same month Tyson will add ground chicken to its product lines. "Our culinary team is creating all kinds of inspiring recipes, from chicken meatballs to chicken sliders," says Sally Grimes, Tyson's group president of prepared foods.

And like Hormel, Tyson is upping its hot dog game. In March its Ball Park brand debuted what it calls Prime, made with only USDA prime beef. Acquiring AdvancePierre Foods Holdings last year is prompting Tyson to explore other meat-based product developments, such as meat snacks, with assistance from the Golden Island jerky unit – which was acquired by Hillshire Brands just before Tyson bought Hillshire.

Manufacturing techniques increase value

Fresh meat and poultry still enjoy premium status in the center of America’s dinner plates, but fresh protein is a commodity product with narrow margins. To increase revenues, further processing is necessary, and meat and poultry companies increasingly are investing in technology that enables them to command higher wholesale prices.

Boosting yield through mechanical injection is one of the surest routes to higher margins. USDA estimates 2.7 billion lbs. of beef a year, slightly more than 10 percent of the total sold at retail, is mechanically tenderized, turning 1 lb. low-value cuts into 1.2 lb. or more of value-added product. Whether or not the process includes vacuum tumbling, it begins with hollow needles penetrating the meat’s muscle and injecting water, brine, seasonings or other flavor enhancers.

The problem, according to Tom Gillette, a Burley, Idaho, civil engineer, is the potential for cross contamination and broken needles in the meat. Additionally, the holes created by the needles provide a channel for the injected fluid to leak out. Half or more of the added flavorings become purge, he estimates.

In 1991, Gillette began toying with the concept of high-pressure injection as an alternative to needles. The pumps, nozzles and other components needed to fabricate such a system were too big, too expensive or both, and the concept languished. When he revisited the idea in 2015, however, component costs had fallen to a point that justified investment.

“We went full force,” he recalls, building a test center in Burley and conducting experiments and trials with different cuts and species. By varying the pressure of the fluid stream as it exited the spray nozzles from 500-2300 psi, engineers at S2I Stream Solutions Inc. (s2iusa.com) found they could boost the weight of the target protein as much as 50 percent. Because nozzles are above and below the belt, penetration up to 6 inches is possible.

The opening left by the pressurized injection is much smaller than a needle aperture, notes Gillette. Tests have shown purge as low as 1.5-2 percent after 5 minutes. Instead, fluid disperses into the muscle for improved suspension. In a comparison trial with a needle injection machine, S2I’s machine consumed five large totes of fluid compared to seven totes with needles.

A clean-in-place system with a 30-min. cleaning cycle cleans and sanitizes the enclosed components, similar to the time needed for tool-less disassembly and cleaning of the belt and other exterior components. Other injectors require 2-3 hours of downtime, maintains Gillette, who serves as S2I’s sales manager (a son is president). The business is part of Gillette Sharp Corp., a holding company for multiple enterprises the senior Gillette has launched or been involved in.

The first industrial-scale machine went into production last year in North America, followed by a South American installation “and now just everywhere,” he says. “This is a worldwide application. We have a SIM card in the machine to troubleshoot remotely.” Paired with a remote camera, it enables technicians in Burley to monitor system performance anywhere in the world.

While stream injection delivers hard benefits, controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS) falls mostly into the soft-benefits category. More is involved than animal welfare, however: Shackling electrically stunned chickens ranks as one of the worst jobs in food processing, and CAS delivers a night-to-day change.

Perdue Farms is the latest poultry processor to attest to that. The company implemented a CAS system at its Milford, Md., organic chicken plant at Thanksgiving time, according to staff veterinarian Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of food safety, quality and live production. The company had evaluated CAS systems and similar systems used by a handful of poultry processors worldwide before settling on a system that delivers escalating levels of carbon dioxide and decreasing concentrations of oxygen, lowering stress as the birds experience loss of posture and become insensible.

CO2 stunning has been used sporadically in hog and turkey operations — Perdue has systems in place for both species — for 20 years. It’s particularly helpful with hogs, which sometimes excrete enzymes that discolor meat during slaughter. Stewart-Brown reports some quality improvements in bird meat with CAS, but the biggest beneficiaries may be workers who otherwise toil in darkened, dusty rooms, shackling birds that sometimes scratch and peck when touched by people.

“That job has never been the favorite job in a harvest facility,” Stewart-Brown understates, “but it is now a good job. The room is well lit, it’s clean, and they play music.” Turnover has plunged in Milford.

OK Foods in Fort Smith, Ark., deployed a variant technology known as low atmosphere stunning seven years ago, gradually lowering chamber pressure to about 5 psi to ease the transition to death. The system drew the ire of some animal welfare activists, but the benefits to workers were comparable to CAS.

Nine additional Perdue slaughter facilities are candidates for CAS, though the next system won’t come on line until 2019 at the earliest. The price tag is hefty: the Milford installation topped $15 million in capital investment.

There are separate stun lines for the plant’s two lines, which handle a combined 200,000-250,000 live birds a day. Other elements include a lairage area where arriving birds spend a couple of hours in a temperature-controlled, de-stressing room. Specialized farm transport crates are being deployed, and a sanitation system for the trailers and modules is in place. When all components are in place, live birds will never be touched after they leave the farm.

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