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Latest trends in poultry processing around the globe
Tuesday, 17 September, 2019, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
David Barker
By 2050, some 70% of the world population will be living in cities. it will need readily available and reasonably priced protein in diet, which chicken meat is uniquely well placed to provide. Broiler chickens convert feed into meat more efficiently than other domesticated meat animals and poultry production is the most environmentally sustainable way of generating high quality animal protein. Both water and carbon dioxide footprints are low. Producing a 1.7kg chicken takes less water than the average four minute shower at home.

As people move to cities and middle classes expand, fewer people will want to work in meat processing plants, where work can be physically demanding and monotonous and the working environment will not be to everyone’s taste. This trend is already underway across the globe.

Speed and robots
The need to supply increasing quantities of chicken meat at an affordable price for an increasingly urbanised society will call for high volume, largely automated processing plants. Line speeds of 15,000 broilers per hour are now possible and already in operation in a number of countries in the world. Higher hourly throughputs and labour shortages will encourage the development of robots for certain functions currently carried out by people. These will often involve gripping and manipulating product during the packing process and in ensuring minimal give-away in the standard weight packs favoured by many supermarkets.

No more lost grams
Over past decades, processing plant yields have increased from 60% to 75%. There is, however, still scope for improvement. Just one single gram of meat “lost” on every bird processed tallies up to a daily loss of 108kg in a plant processing 13,500 bph over an eight hour shift. This is where comprehensive real-time data can help. Currently available vision systems and weigh stations placed at convenient points in the process feed data to a centrally located software platform, which gives plant management precise minute by minute information on the weight and quality profile of birds passing through the process. When combined with knowledge of customer orders, this data will allow management to react quickly and decisively to changed or unforeseen circumstances. The software platform can even interact with process machinery. When flock weights change, equipment can be reset automatically to handle the new weight. Those lost grams can be saved and process performance can be kept at optimum levels.

Food safety
Being able to track and trace products electronically through the process helps food safety too. Food safety is becoming an increasingly important issue with consumers and many supermarkets now insist that their suppliers are able to supply full traceability. Food safety is also helped by automation, as human hands are the major contaminant in any poultry processing plant. Today’s ideal process is very largely automated and in-line. Live birds shackled to the processing line stay in-line and untouched by human hands until released as a whole product or cut portion.

Animal well-being
In many markets, consumers want to know where their meat has come from and how it has been raised. In these markets locally raised, organic and slow growing chicken are becoming ever more popular. Unlike in India, many young people in North America and Europe are turning away from meat altogether. Reasons for this are the perception that eating meat is unhealthy or that exploiting animals for human use is unethical. Poultry is widely seen as being the healthiest meat option; exploitation arguments are best addressed by paying attention to animal well-being. Poultry processing begins when birds are ready for collection from the growing farm. Processors must ensure that catching, loading, transport to the processing plant and stunning is done as humanely as possible. Equipment suppliers should give processors the tools to do the job.

No compromises
Where birds have to be stunned before killing, this is still widely done electrically. Controlled atmosphere stunning has been around for over 20 years and is now gaining new users fast, particularly in high volume plants. Electrical stunning involves a trade-off between animal well-being and meat quality. The higher the amperage, the better for animal wellbeing but the greater the risk of unwelcome blood spots in breast and thigh meat. A softer stun runs the risk that birds will not be stunned deeply enough and is illegal in some markets. Controlled atmosphere stunning involves no such compromises. It offers the considerable additional benefit that birds are stunned before being shackled to the processing line. They no longer experience the stress of being handled and then conveyed upside down to the electrical stunner. Hanging operatives no longer have to struggle with flapping birds.

Sustainability and carcass balance
Consumers are increasingly concerned that the meat they eat has been produced sustainably. Sustainability means the avoidance of waste, care of the environment and the responsible use of renewable inputs such as water and energy. Most processes involve assembling individual components into a single end product. Poultry processing does things the other way round. It disassembles. A sustainable disassembly process pays careful attention to ensuring that no parts are lost, that the quality of every individual component is preserved and that the very best use is found for it. This means achieving the best possible carcass balance. In markets which prefer breast meat, every effort should be made to develop attractive leg meat products; in those preferring leg meat, the same efforts should be expended on breast meat. There are now high performance automatic breast and leg deboning systems available, which drastically reduce the cost of producing innovative tasty deboned meat products, while maintaining the quality and yield of a manual operation.

Carbon footprint
The responsible use of renewable inputs is also an important factor when designing new equipment. Equipment should be designed without blind spots so that it can be effectively washed clean with as little water as possible. Scalding is a process which traditionally uses a lot of water; there’s now a system on the market which uses hot air. Increasing the number of products which can be processed on a single line, currently 15,000 bph, helps too, as water and energy use per bird processed will drop. Reducing carbon footprint should also be a priority. This could mean paying more attention to transport. A newly developed module for transporting live birds from the growing farm to the processing plant allows over a third more birds to be transported per trip without compromising their comfort. This means fewer trips and a smaller carbon footprint.

Labor shortages, animal well-being, food safety and sustainability are all issues currently exercising the minds of processors across the globe and influencing trends in the industry.

(The writer is content creator, Marel Poultry, the Netherlands)
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