If investment in plant refurbishment and new builds is an accurate barometer for the overall state of the British meat industry, the clouds are beginning to lift. "The market is looking up," says FJB Systems Partner Edwin Bowater. "People are building more so profits must be up although the onus is still to keep costs to a minimum."
Despite abattoir numbers following a trend of decline, "those remaining are the more shrewd operators," he says.
Weybridge-based FJB Systems designs and project manages for the food processing and cold storage industries, with its client base ranging from Association of Independent Meat Suppliers members to the larger, national meat processors.
Services have been rendered to, among others, Bronte Foods, Faccenda Chickens, Grampian Country Pork, Smithfield Foods and Sainsbury's. The business also operates internationally.
Its services include process layouts, architectural planning drawings, design drawings and specifications and refrigeration, insulation and electrical engineering design. One £250,000 project in Ludlow to bring an abattoir up to scratch with EU licensing, for example, involved a survey of the site, recommendations, drawings and specifications, tendering and project management of a new chiller block and cutting room.
"Price - or rather value for money - is the overriding trend," says Bowater. "One of the things we often find is, invariably, the same mistake is made - the client has been running an abattoir for 15 to 20 years and knows all about how to do that but goes to someone inexperienced for the design. The architect designs a wonderful building but can't fit in what they want to do."
Layout is the key concern for meat plants, says Bowater, and should be the starting point in planning. "Then you put a building around it," he adds, and make sure planning permission is secured before work commences on the project. "It's like fitting out a building that doesn't exist; the process layout is so important."
Many of FJB Systems' clients in the small- and medium-sized abattoir sector are putting in cutting rooms, and moving into pre-packed meats, prompted by the return of over 30 months beef.
"The future of the UK industry is selling boxed and vac-packed meat," says Bowater. "People don't want to buy carcases and have to fiddle around with it."
A further trend he notes in plant design is a move from 48- to 24-hour chillers, which most of the overseas industry now uses. Many of the medium-sized plants in the UK are using 48-hour chilling and experiencing problems with their units, which aren't bringing the meat down to the correct temperature.
Installing 24-hour chillers allows boning of product the next day, doubling of throughput and reduction of wastage, as too much shrinkage occurs with the 48-hour option, says Bowater.
And achieving energy efficiency is another major trend driver in plant design, with operators appreciating the cost savings as much as environmental benefits.
"Prices over the last three years have more than doubled," says Bowater. "Electricity was off the radar previously for plant operators but now they know what their bill is, and are looking to economise." Canny operators seeking to invest in heat recovery technology need to calculate the capital cost against the payback period.
Efficient design of meat plants can prevent undue energy consumption with, for example, a good ventilation system removing the need for air conditioning of the slaughter floor over the warm summer months.
One simple solution which can pare down bills, continues Bowater, is turning the plant off for a couple of hours during the peak energy period. It sounds obvious, he says, but few think to do it. Refrigeration and chillers are the principal energy users and good design can further keep energy costs down.
"Water consumption is another rising cost for operators," says Bowater, "not that the cost of water itself has gone up but they're becoming more conscious of it as the cost of treating effluent goes up." Many of FJB Systems' overseas clients recycle rainwater for use in washing out lairages.
"Much of it is common sense but if you don't plan it in at the start," he says, such cost-reducing measures
can be too expensive to add at a
later date. British Meat
Processors Association director
Maurice McCartney also ascribes
longevity to environmentally-friendly facets in plant design. >>
>> "The new Direct Table plant at Bury St Edmunds has lots of great features such as water recovery from rainfall," he says.
The £20 million bacon plant was opened earlier this year, replacing its previous site destroyed by fire in 2004. The six-month project to build the new 3,500-square-foot plant on a six-acre site was managed by East Midlands-based food industry specialist Clegg Food Projects. The syphonic grey water recovery system collects rainwater from the plant roof for use in toilet flushing and yard cleaning.
As well as incorporating non-CFC refrigerants, its refrigeration technology includes variable speed motors on compressors and evaporators to reduce energy consumption during periods of low demand.
Further, energy from refrigeration compressors is redirected to aid in heating water for use elsewhere. Full remote temperature access and control reduces wastage, while the office air conditioning transfers hot air from warmer to cooler rooms on demand.
Direct Table also applied 'eco' credentials to the construction of its site, with old glass used in pipeline infills and the building's concrete sub-bases.
While the plant offers capacity to process 300t of product each week, potential for further expansion was
included in the planning stages.
Innovations in processing at the Bury St Edmunds site include use of a multi-needle injecting system and tank curing over three to five days, while friction smoke generators operate at a cooler temperature and with greater control for up to three hours.
The bacon is blast frozen at -25ºC, and brought up to -10ºC for slicing to specification on nine processing lines for retail and bulk packed rashers, gammon steaks and joints. Direct Table also operates a trial line allowing limited runs.
A quality control room tests bacon packs from the production lines every 30 minutes for gas content, weight and labelling, and a test kitchen was included in the designs for tastings and development of new cures.
Meanwhile, increasing automation continues to be a trend in plant design, notable in two plants opened in 2005 - the Grampian Country Food Group's £25m site in Winsford, Cheshire and the Dawn Group's £32m plant at Cross Hands Food Park, West Wales, both of which are Asda-dedicated.
The Grampian site uses advances in automation, robotics and software, taking inspiration from the drinks and clothing sectors, for its pork and lamb processing. Multi national provider Swisslog sourced innovative equipment such as Kukas grippers capable of lifting five pallets at a time, a MultiPick system for packing different products together and in-crate radio frequency identification.
Dawn's project was planned and executed by an in-house team in collaboration with the retailer, construction management specialist Arvida and equipment supplier Herbert Industrial.
Specialist features include its complete range of temperature control and sophisticated robotic and electronic stock management and racking areas in the intake and dispatch areas.
Also, a dedicated energy centre and innovative materials such as anti-static panelling were incorporated in the design of the pork and beef processing site.