Developments in meat processing: playing it cool

Nicholas Robinson tracks how modern meat processing came into being and finds there is plenty more development to come

As democracy brought freedom to the populous, so to did better processing, a broader understanding of meat production and back-of-house practices, bring meat to the majority.

When the population moved from the country to the cities to find work during the 19th century industrial revolution, food production had to increase and meat slowly moved from being a sign of wealth and into all parts of society – becoming ever-more accessible after the Second World War in 1950, when the society began to rebuild itself.

Over several decades, better meat production methods brought cheaper meat to the table of the common man. Although it may not have been as affordable as many have become used to now, most would have at least a roast on a Sunday, which was defined by the philanthropist Joseph Rowntree to be one of the basics in differentiating between poverty and a basic standard of living.


However, for meat to become something of a regular at the dining table of the masses, mankind had to find a way of stopping it from spoiling as, without killing or controlling the spread of bacteria, meat goes off incredibly quickly.

Refrigeration springs to mind when on the topic of meat storage, but any refrigerator resembling the white goods seen in domestic kitchens these days, was non-existent until the latter half of the 20th century.

If meat could not be preserved by cooling, then it was preserved with smoke, salt or even air-dried. Many households would store various cuts of meat inside the chimney breast to prolong its life – smoking and curing it at the same time – this is also where families would store their salt to prevent the damp from spoiling it.

But when technology was finally refined enough to allow refrigerators to enter the home in the early 20th century, they were produced in their millions for the domestic market and have become an important part of the meat industry.  


Although born to stop the spoilage of food, the refrigerator played a crucial part in the development of the meat processing industry as we know it today.

Traditionally meat would have gone from the slaughterhouse to the butcher’s shop and then to the consumer as a raw ingredient. But in 1950s America, the precursor to the modern-day ready meal was born, which started a change in the face of meat processing forever. The ready meal simply would not have been achievable without the ability to control temperature, as the product relies on being stored in chillers or freezers before it is cooked and consumed.

As a result, the advancement of the ready meal saw meat move from the slaughterhouse to wholesalers, to processors, to storage, to manufacturers, to the supermarket and then to the consumers’ fridges or freezers. Meat became an ingredient in the frozen ready meal, as well as part of a home-cooked meal.

The US company documented as responsible for the ready meal was Swanson, which was named after its founder, the Swedish immigrant Carl Swanson. The company produced a frozen chicken pot pie in 1950 and, in 1952, the ‘TV dinner’ was coined and brought to the masses. Although the TV dinner only sold 5,000 units in its first year, just one year on, it managed to sell 10,000,000.

Despite existing in the US since 1950, the ready meal took its time coming to the shores of the UK and only became widely available in the 1970s, before going from strength to strength. Eventually the domestic market broadened its ready-meal palate and the chilled ready meal is now something of a regular on supermarket shelves. In 2012 the chilled ready meal accounted for 57% of the UK ready meal market and is worth £2.6bn a year.

The processing line

Keeping up with such high consumption demanded evermore sophisticated machines to process meat into pre-packed meals. The food needed to be stored and then cooked in its packaging, while machines needed to be invented to portion, slice, weigh, seal and monitor the products on the processing lines. Companies such as Marel, Bizerba, Handtmann and Reiser moved into or with the market and developed the technology needed to correctly slice, weigh and package meat and meat-based products.

Demand for fixed-weight packs of sliced meats intensified during the 20th century and, although existing technology gave satisfactory performance at the time, it was only doing so for ‘regular’ shaped products. This resulted in the invention of a Predictive Slicer by Marel in the 1990s, which measured the weight and length of each piece of meat going into the machine, allowing a cutting profile to be created, which reduced handling and the need for products to be manually weighed.

Removing the human hand from the processing line, to make way for increased accuracy, as well as to limit contamination, has been the intent of many companies. This is not only to reduce contact with the human hand, but to reduce the workforce behind processing. As such, integrated systems were developed, which combined slicing lines with processing systems. Integrated systems allowed processors to enhance the presentation of their products before they were packaged, again, reducing the need for the human hand.

The future

Meanwhile, as the millennium dawned, so too did mankind’s aptitude for developing increasingly intelligent machines, and the food processing industry now uses robotics in a bid to remove the human hand from processing lines. As a result, the robotics industry is set grow by 3.4% by 2016, which will be helped mostly by the food and drinks sector.

Meat processing in the future lies with automation and this has been the industry’s future for several decades now, but automation will most certainly involve robotics in some way, shape or form. And like the car industry, swathes of meat processing will be carried out by the robotic ‘hand’ rather than the human hand, industry experts predict.

The meat sector is in perpetual progress, it has managed to move with the times as consumer demands have changed, has performed better when criticised and has changed when health, environmental and animal rights issues arose.  

What they said:

Once, it was an industry that saw men carry huge lumps of meat over their shoulders – where meat was displayed on pavements and outside shop windows. Those days are long gone, but are remembered by those who have grown up in the trade through the decades and seen the changes first-hand.  

Stephen Rossides, director, BMPA

The history of the meat processing industry is long and there have been many, many innovations along the way. However, director of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) Stephen Rossides highlights several innovations as having  an impact on the industry.

According to Rossides, there is so much to say, but he points to technological developments as being key to much of what has gone on in the industry – “from hygiene regulations to temperature control and the likes of lugging meat around Smithfields”, he says.

He also points to butchery techniques, canning and temperature control as being part of the driving force behind the global trade in meat. “What has also changed is that meat is imported a lot now; the Commonwealth and membership of the EU and the single market are key to this,” adds Rossides.

But a shift in how businesses are structured is also key to how the meat processing sector looks today, he explains. “The increasing concentration in the industry has had a big impact,” he adds. “It has gone from lots of small family businesses to lots of large businesses and international businesses. The movement of companies from overseas into the UK has played a part in shaping the industry.”

Rossides adds that animal disease has also impacted on how the industry looks right now and points to major disease outbreaks, such as BSE, foot-and-mouth and bird flu, as having an effect on the industry. “But consumers too, have had an impact on the industry,” he says. “I would say the consumer has always been important and the increasing improvement in hygiene standards and [treating] disease have brought about higher quality standards.”

BPC, Peter Bradnock

Not only has the industry seen advances in technology, but the way the product xxxxx has also changed along with consumer demand.
British Poultry Council (BPC) chief executive Peter Bradnock explains the poultry industry, in particular, has seen a change in the product itself. “A very high proportion of chicken used to be frozen and that has moved to virtually all fresh,” he says.

“There has also a decrease in the use of ingredients that disguise the meat. People like to see what they are eating and there has been a decrease in the use of ingredients such as bread crumbs.”

Meanwhile, Bradnock points out that farming methods have also changed, with companies looking at the environment and bird welfare in more detail than perhaps in the past. But, like many others, he too says advances in technology have shaped the processing sector in a big way. “We have seen a lot more stainless steel, automation, better packaging and robotics. The use of laser trimming and all kinds of things like that have increased.”

David McKane, director, Datos

While technology has played its part in the progression of the meat processing industry in this country, back-of-house operations have also helped the industry thrive.

Administration, book-keeping and stock ordering methods are a necessity for any business at any period in time, but managing director David McKane at the professional solutions company Datos says he remembers when things weren’t as developed as they are now. “If you go back far enough, you can find labels are handwritten and stuck to the packets. I once thought invoices were the most important thing, but now I realise that the invoice is not the most important thing any more, the label is and if you cannot produce a label, then business stops.”

Meanwhile, pointing to the future, McKane says things will improve more. He says the smartphone will help develop how things are done in the industry. Whereas people would physically look on their shelves to see what stock they had before calling their supplier, he says, “pretty soon they will be putting orders in through their iPhones and Android phones, which will put their stocks right”.

Such technology has already been adopted by Eblex with its Meat Purchasing app for smartphones. The app, launched in March this year, allows butchers and chefs to order specific cuts from their supplier by using their smartphone.


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