Waste not, want not

Food processing machinery is changing rapidly, as the demand for labour-saving devices and a reduction in waste increases. Chloe Smith reports

As with all technology, the rate of change in food processing machinery is rapid. Developments cut labour costs, improve efficiency and prolong shelf-life. Technology has made leaps forward in recent years, and jobs that were once labour-intensive, such as loading products into bags or containers, are now routinely incorporated into the production line and are done by machines.

Mincers, slicers and weighers are becoming increasingly computerised to improve accuracy, remove human error and cut labour costs. Sophisticated X-ray machines monitor packs and reject any that do not measure up to the computer memory of how the product should look. And equipment increasingly carries out multiple functions, such as weighing meat and scanning its contours as it is sliced, ensuring each slice weighs the same as the last.

As we enter 2007, those who work in the meat processing industry will be gearing up for the Frankfurt trade fair, IFFA, taking place between 5-10 May. There, the world's largest machinery designers and manufacturers will gather to show what innovations

will be shaking up the meat

processing world and changing the way factories operate.

In the coming years, one factor that is sure to affect the food processing industry is concern for the environment. Packaging waste is big news and, as the multiple retailers fight to prove their 'green' credentials, we are likely to see changes in the way meat is packaged and marketed.

So what else will we see in 2007? As always, change happens, but in the 21st century, that change is getting more rapid. New machinery will be launched this year, technological developments will change the function of existing machines, and robots that were the stuff of sci-fi will become reality. So here is your preview for 2007, as some of Britain's biggest suppliers of meat processing equipment talk to MTJ about what machinery they expect to be big in 2007, and the trends that are driving the sector.

LABOUR-SAVING DEVICES

Mark Henderson, managing director of Treif, says machines that cut out labour is increasingly what the sector is demanding. "The feedback we have received in 2006 indicates that machinery offering 'added value' is likely to be the key to success in 2007. Our customers not only want a standard machine, they are craving for additional features that can save on labour and reduce unnecessary handling," says Henderson.

A new development is the addition of weighing scales to Treif's Argon and Twister dicing and strip-cutting machines. "Thanks to intensive development work, we are now the world's only manufacturer whose dicers are able to cut packing units and economy packs to a prescribed weight," says Henderson.

"Precise weights - this is the big subject that motivates and preoccupies the meat industry," he says. "The trend for precisely weighed packs is growing continuously; this applies equally to weight-defined packing of sliced meat, or diced meat for meat pies."

The new Argon and Twister developments means bags and containers can be automatically loaded with the product up to a specific weight cut-off point - something that workers would previously have had to do manually by placing the product into a bag, transferring it to scales and adjusting the amount. The machines with weighing scales will appear in brochures in 2007 as a time- and labour-saving innovation.

Another machine, the Falcon, has also just been equipped with a check-weigher. This, says Henderson, is the world's only slicer capable of cutting both bone-in and boneless products with precise weights.

"The Falcon owes its sharp eye to the latest scanning technology," says Henderson. "Two scanners installed directly ahead of the blade provide a complete 360-degree measurement of the product from all sides, both above and below. As the products need not be pressed into a particular form before cutting, they can remain in their natural shape."

The addition of a check-weigher and sorting device to the Falcon "eliminates the need for costly manual check-weighing," says Henderson.

Dave Stone, general manager of Weiler Beehive, says 2007 will be a big year for his company, with the launch of a new range of mincers called Dominator. Stone hopes the machines will have completed trials and be ready for launch at IFFA in May.

"We've got two versions coming," says Stone. "The first is [designed for] high-capacity pre-grinding and final grinding." This machine will be suitable only for large-scale processors. "We're talking about a grinder that's mincing meat at 600lb or nearly 300kg per minute, so there's a very restricted number of customers who can accommodate that."

There is also a smaller capacity mincer, which will grind 135-180kg a minute, aimed at the general UK market, which should be launched in mid-2007. Weiler Beehive is, however, "working like there's no tomorrow to try and get it released by IFFA but there's no guarantee of that".

Stone explains what will be on offer within the Dominator range: "There are two versions: the higher-capacity and the lower-capacity. But within that, there will be a lower-capacity version for pre-grind and one for

final grind. And the same goes for

the higher-capacity."

A CUT ABOVE

"They've been redesigned to make the meat that passes through the grinder more efficient and offer a better cut on the product," says Stone. "When you grind meat, you cut the tissues and, depending on how you do that affects how it tastes when you finally cook it and bite into it. So we've worked on getting a better cut and getting the product to flow through the grinder more efficiently. The ultimate aim was to give the user a better end-product."

Stone is confident the Dominator range will be popular when it is launched later in 2007. "Everyone is looking for quality," he says. "Nobody wants to change the raw material because that would increase the price of the product, but everyone

wants to increase the quality of the product without increasing the raw material costs."

Andrew Stark, marketing director of Multivac, says environmentally-friendly packaging is the future, and machines are adapting to make it possible. "The biggest trend for next year is the down-gauging of films to reduce packaging waste," says Stark. "So we've got a machine coming out next year called Lipform, which is a specialised thermoformer. It produces a pack that has a rolled lip at the top, which gives it a certain amount of additional structural strength for, potentially, a lighter gauge of material.

"At the moment the supermarkets are all working hard to prove their green credentials and are looking at various initiatives, so I would say the retailers are the primary factors in this. We're behind on some aspects such as recycling, compared with our European neighbours."

All Multivac thermoformers are designed so they can have inserts, which mark the different types of packaging with coded numbers and shapes. "Without that, recycling is impossible," says Stark. "All of our machines are able to take inserts, so in terms of reducing packaging waste, one of the first things you can do is make sure everything is appropriately marked so it can be identified."

The Lipform machine also reduces waste as it packs on the production line. "Normally when you thermoform, you have a waste stream, which is the cut-out from around the pack," says Stark. "It is the top film and the bottom film that is welded together through part of the sealing process. With the Lipform, it is cut away without having been sealed to the base layer. So there are separate waste streams, which is better in terms of recycling."

But while a general reduction in packaging is certainly a trend for 2007, the most important things are, as always, protecting the product, preserving it and presenting it attractively, emphasises Stark.

NEW TECHNIQUE

Step forward Formshrink, a new thermoforming technique with a special film, designed to be tough but easy to open. "Formshrink essentially is thermoforming, so you're creating a cavity into which you're loading the product, such as whole chickens," says Stark. "The top layer is then put over the top of the chicken and is sealed in the normal way a thermoformer would. However, the clever thing is that the film is shrinkable and flexible, so we cut around the shape or the contour of the chicken and then, as it comes out of the end of the thermoformer, we put it through a shrink panel. The seal shrinks down all over the chicken to provide a tight, second skin, so you end up with a very small beaded seal."

Air is vacuumed out of the packaging and replaced with a modified atmosphere for longer shelf-life. "It is also easy to open because there's a special tear tab, says Stark. "One of the criticisms of chicken packaging, whether it is tray-sealed or flow-wrap, is the fact that the only way you can get into it is with a knife. On this one there is a little ear on the edge of the pack, which is perforated; you can tear it and the whole product opens up."

Formshrink packaging is being trialled in a number of regions in Tesco, with a view to rolling it out nationwide later in 2007. "Tesco is very excited about it because of the reduced wastage, longer shelf-life

and a better appearance on the

shelf," says Stark.

"The packaging is tight and tough against leaks, which has been an issue at times," he says. "The main thing is the sealing method. We get the hermetic seal all the way round the product and, in the not-too-distant past, chickens were being overwrapped. But the hermetic seal we get on thermoforming is particularly strong, so the combination of heat and pressure gives a particularly strong seal."

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