Weighing & Labelling: Ready, willing and label

Increased scrutiny on the meat sector means that weighing and labelling systems need to be top quality. Michelle Perrett reports.

Meat product labelling and weighing accuracy has seen dramatic changes over the last year and getting it wrong can be costly to the meat processor.

Yet it seems that not a single week goes by when the Food Standards Agency is not issuing guidance about mislabelled meat that needs to be recalled. In January, the Real Lancashire Black Pudding Co had to recall its black pudding slices over a labelling error with the wrong ‘use by’ date. More recently supermarket chain Sainsbury’s recalled its Just Cook Chicken Breast with Piri Piri sauce, due to some products being incorrectly packaged and containing milk and wheat, which were not detailed on the label. 

Mistakes such as this can be financially damaging to the processor costing a considerable amount of money in lost product and recall outlay – not to mention the backlash from retailers.

Increasing legislation

Over the past year, the industry has been bombarded with the introduction of new European legislation. The EU Regulation 1169/2011, which came into force in April 2015, brought in a raft of new rules including country-of-origin labelling (COOL). All fresh, chilled and frozen meat from sheep, goats, pigs and poultry has to be labelled with where the animal was born, reared and slaughtered. A similar rule for beef has been in place since the BSE crisis. The regulations also require the origin statement to be backed by a paper trail back to the farm, so that the origin claims can be checked by regulators.

Part of the regulations, which were implemented in December 2014, includes mandatory nutrition information on processed foods, allergen information and better label legibility. Meat now has to highlight whether it has added water, whether the meat is formed and if it has added proteins. 

However, the importance of getting this information correct is proving difficult across Europe as results published in November 2014 show. The European consumer organisation BEUC analysed tests carried out on meat products between April 2014 and August 2015 in Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Portugal. The startling results highlighted the use of illegal food additives, incomplete information about the percentage of meat in the product, as well as added water, confusing product names and fraudulent use of other species, such as turkey kebab sold as veal. The mislabelled meat came from both bigger food producers in Europe, as well as small to medium-sized firms.While many of those results may have been in error, rather than fraud, they underline the challenges facing the meat processors in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.

Labelling and weighing machines need to ensure products are weighed, labelled and priced correctly. And this is not the only pressure facing processors, as they need to be flexible over production and minimise give-away. They are also under pressure to meet increasingly tight specifications for pack weights at a retail and regulatory level.

David Hadley, product manager at Multivac, believes the whole system is a “minefield”. “The amount of information required on labelling systems is now significant and operators need to ensure they have fail-safes in place. Equipment on our labellers will check to make sure it has the right label for the product on the pack. Any packs without a label on or with the incorrect label on will stop the packing line.”

He says that, often, mistakes used to take place on ingredients where one batch of sausages might have 20% water content and another 30%. “If a supermarket finds out, the supplier is charged for recall and transportation. You are looking at a £20,000 fine.”

Multivac, which offers a range of marking and inspection labelling and printing equipment for fixed weight products, says systems are becoming more advanced to ensure these kind of errors do not happen. However, a certain amount of responsibility still has to be taken by the processor to input the right information into their data management systems, Hadley admits. “Our machinery sticks the labels on the packs, but it is the customer that needs to decide what to print on their labels.”

Multivac also offers a range of scanners and systems that monitor the bar codes on packed meat. “They read the bar code on every pack and if one comes without a bar code, it will reject the pack,” says Hadley.

But with the traceability of products becoming so important, even more sophistication is necessary. “Processors may want to check it is the right label with a vision camera, which takes an image of every single pack that goes through at a speed of 120 packs a minute,” says Hadley. “It will also check the day codes are correct on the pack and it also checks the print quality of the labels.”

Multivac is not the only company offering cameras to ensure the traceability of product. Dimaco, which supplies vision and label inspection systems, has Smart-Check, the camera-based inspection system, as part of its Veri-Pack product. The system, which helps with food safety as well as product traceability, checks that the correct labels have been applied to the packs and all essential pre-printed and over-printed data such as bar codes, dates, price and weight are correct and legible. “Our systems will read the data, the weight, the sell-by date, the use-by date, allergens and there could be a myriad of data the processor wants in addition.” says Karl Holt, general manager at Dimaco. “We read that and verify it is correct.”It also has a completely independent checkweigher, which verifies the weight of each product.

While Holt admits that the current regulations are “outrageous”, he recognises that traceability is important in helping to protect consumers. “Every image of the pack that has been inspected is saved, with a data sheet saying who did it, what they did and why they did it,” he says. “It saves all those images and then you can look back to what happened on a specific day. It is all about traceability and companies like Marks & Spencer insist on that.”

The technology has become so advanced that it can show what is produced, where it is, where it has been and even which people have dealt with it on the production line.

In one case, Holt says, Dimaco set up an email alert for a client to indicate that there had been a change on a machine and who made the change. “All the time we are trying to save the end-user money.”

Marel says its Innova Labelling software can help processors meets the terms of the new regulations. The software allows the food processor to monitor and control every step of the production process, from the
receipt of raw materials to the dispatch of products.

They can put all the information on a single label, avoiding the need to print multiple labels. It also simplifies the management by allowing processors to centrally manage all printers and labels. “Any printer in the plant can print the same label design, using the full range of Windows fonts and formatting features, including rich text blocks. There is no need to download fonts or images to printers.”

Weighty arguments

While processors have to meet regulatory requirements with regards to labelling, ensuring the right weight of products can have a significant effect on the profitability of a processor. Matt Taylor, weighing and inspection product manager for Multivac, says that weight accuracy is becoming increasingly important and not just because of legislation. “There are two main things,” he says. “Firstly, it is a requirement of legislation because you have to prove what you are stating on the pack is what you are giving out. The second part is the give-away. If you monitor what is going through your machine with underweights and overweights, you are saving money.”

He says that measuring the product before it is packed means that it can be easily rejected if it does not meet requirements. “You are not wasting the product, but might need to rework it, which might take a little time. When you are talking several tonnes an hour this is a massive saving.”

All processors see it as essential to speed up production while keeping the accuracy at a high level. And by ensuring efficiency this inevitably helps with profitability. “The challenges are to get machines that are faster,” says Taylor. “We offer a twin-lane option, so instead of offering a single packet it can double the speed and cope with the high-speed applications.” 

New checkweighers are designed to keep up with the faster production speeds. Many also offer software that enables companies to analyse data, so they can build up a statistical history. Multivac uses the Bizerba Brain software and technology with its kit, which can help with this data analysis. “Because this is at the end of the process, it is an ideal time to check the operational efficiencies,” he says.

Interfood Technology also offers precision weighing technology with the capability to reduce give-away. Its Sparc Cerberus 420 is an automated checkweighing system that can be delivered, along with labelling from a single machine.

Interfood claims: “By adopting automated processes and removing or minimising the need for human intervention, a repeatable and consistent product process can be achieved, driving increased efficiency, security and control of product quality.”

The machine can detect contaminants, weigh the product and also verify the pack label details on formats in sizes up to 300mm x 300mm x 100mm. It will reject inaccurate packs with a servo-driven reject system. Interfood says the servo machine offers potential savings of up to £4,000 a year on running costs compared with machines based on compressed air operation. 

Food processors have a significant amount of regulation to deal with in regards to the labelling and weighing of product. And they also need to be profitable by ensuring the lowest give-away possible. It is obvious that planning for the future and any potential changes in regulations can be more cost-effective for the processor.

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