Growing Margins in a Shrinking Economy

21. smoking equipment

How food processors are finding increased profits through better equipment.

With retailers holding processors of ready-to-eat meat and poultry products to relatively defined price levels, the only way to effectively increase profit margins is by lowering the cost of production without sacrificing either food quality or safety.

Though it may seem a contradiction – particularly in the face of a stressed economy – food processors are doing just that through a surprising avenue: capital investment in new equipment that achieves higher efficiencies while also maintaining or improving quality and safety standards.

“Sometimes it takes a tough economic climate for people to really appreciate the many practicalities of upgrading their systems and processes,” says Adam Cowherd, Vice President of International Sales at Unitherm Food Systems (Bristow, OK). “Under the circumstances improved productivity may be an obvious goal. However, many of our users achieve that while also enhancing product quality and improved food and equipment safety, which can also add significantly to profitability.”

Cowherd’s company is a major manufacturer and marketer of equipment used by the food processing industry, with customers worldwide using its innovative equipment and systems to maximize food yields and reduce processing times.  

According to Cowherd, there are essentially four areas where food processors, particularly those who process deli meats, can benefit immediately.

Infrared – profitable pasteurizing

Producers of ready-to-eat meat and poultry, such as delis, are incorporating food processing technologies that ensure food safety from pathogens. Infrared-based (IR) pasteurization systems have been proven to do this best, while also optimizing color, taste and cooking efficiencies. IR can add appreciable profits margins.

In a study conducted by Nanditha Gande and Peter Muriana at Oklahoma State University, it was found that the hazards of Lysteria and other pathogens on products ranging from hams and briskets to deli loaves were reduced significantly using quick IR surface treatments. Using IR pasteurization equipment provided by Unitherm, log reduction of 3 or better was achieved, a measurement that the authors said should be viewed both in terms of safety for consumers and recalls for producers.

Those still performing the pasteurization in a hot water bag are also incurring significant additional expense when they repackage ready-to-eat (RTE) products. During the repackaging process the equipment creates a vacuum that draws any surface bacteria down farther into the meat. Conversely, IR pasteurization is performed just prior to packaging, and can eliminate surface pathogens without using a vacuum. Not only is this more efficient and effective, but also saves the cost of the vacuum bag, which can be very significant over even a six-month period.

“Using hot water pasteurization you have to chill and re-heat products,” adds Cowherd. “Over time you can imagine how much energy that costs. You’re also using a special bag that costs an extra 3-cents per pound of which really adds up. Because of that re-heating, there is some additional purge that develops inside the bag, and that means additional loss on the product yield. IR pasteurization requires only about 60 seconds, saving considerable processing time as well as providing additional yield. Plus, RTE shelf life can be extended an average of 20-30 percent. All of those benefits of IR pasteurization can add significantly to profit margins.”


Savings on browning and smoking

Using a batch oven smokehouse chamber to develop the wanted color and flavor, the industry norm for browning and smoking is about 45 to 90 minutes. The basis for this processing time is the need for a Maillard reaction (a nonenzymatic chemical reaction used in the formation brown pigments) to achieve the desired surface color.

“A Maillard reaction is achievable only at high temperatures, a much higher than what a common smokehouse or batch oven could possibly achieve,” explains Cowherd. “Equipment such as our IR pasteurizers and RapidFlow ovens (which use utilizes high-velocity, high temperature air, combined with super-heated steam) can easily attain those temperatures. That capability makes the liquid smoke ‘color’ very quickly – which saves both time and energy costs.”

Cowherd adds that while it would take over an hour to smoke a Virginia ham using smokehouse equipment, an in-line oven with high-temperature capabilities can brown and smoke a ham in approximately 10 minutes, providing much-improved throughput as well as energy savings.

Dramatically shortening the smoking process has an even more remarkable effect on product yield. Whereas the industry average for shrinkage using the typical smokehouse method is between 12 and 25 percent, advanced IR or high-velocity steam technology limits shrinkage to between 2-3 percent.

Cowherd says that whether this more advanced and efficient equipment is a retrofit or part of a turnkey system, the equipment can be “bent” to best fit the customer’s needs, as opposed to having the process adjusted to fit the equipment. For example, Unitherm’s patented Vertical Cruster, which can increase yields up to an amazing 90 percent on slicing of meat logs and loaves, can easily be integrated into existing deli systems.


Continuous “spiral” cooking and freezing

Conventional batch ovens require multiple, repeated processes that are somewhat wasteful and time-consuming. You have to turn it on, get it up to temperature, install the trolleys and then the product  . . . and later turn it off so that you can take everything out.

In the spiral ovens and steamers you can continuously cook (up to 20,000 lbs. per hour on some models) entire RTE pieces in the bag without shutting down and restarting the oven.

The spiral equipment, which is available in either gas or electric models, constantly runs in a desired temperature range, which is far more energy efficient than the batch oven counterpart. Spiral designs are also considerably more efficient and effective than many thermal oil oven designs. Spiral ovens can be heated up to nearly 500 degrees (F), much hotter than the typical thermal oil oven. Therefore the throughput capacity of spiral ovens can be much greater than thermal oil versions.

Unitherm spiral ovens and steamers include humidity controls, temperature probes and the airflow controls that provide users the ability to manage yields. This ability as well as dramatically improved product throughput, in turn, adds significantly to profit margins.

“Even the smaller footprint of spiral ovens and freezers contributes to savings of space,” Cowherd adds. “Linear ovens of 40 feet in length are common, but less practical than, say, the Mini Spiral oven, which fits in an 8 ft. x 8 ft. x 8ft. space. And that model ships in one piece, so you have much lower installation time and costs.”


Profiting on added safety

The recalls that have gone on in the industry – not to mention illnesses and deaths – can be a major factor when it comes to reputation and profitability, particularly in tough economic times. And it is very possible for food processing equipment to play a positive role in reducing or eliminating this by design.

For example, until recently many freezers use foam-based insulation panels that can withstand only limited cold temperatures and which become infected with pathogens. This type of design is virtually impossibly to fully clean or disinfect, says Cowherd.

“It is for this reason that inside our spiral freezers is a fully welded insulated box. Because it is made of stainless steel and fully welded these enclosures do not get bacteria caught in or behind them.  Also, because of the stainless steel construction, we can incorporate a cleaning mode, a 35-minute process that raises the temperature to 185 degrees (F).”

Cowherd points out that concern for product and equipment safety has led Unitherm to design many hygienic products, such as a continuously sanitized cooking bag slitter. Also, the firm produces one of the only boot washes in the industry that can actually clean itself.

“These days, when retail price points are severely limiting the room for producer profits, we have to look everywhere to find savings through improved processes and greater efficiencies,” Cowherd says. “They can not only make significant productivity and quality differences in the short run, but also pay for themselves very quickly.”

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