With retailers holding ready-to-eat meat and poultry processors to relatively defined price levels, the only way to effectively increase profit margins is to lower production cost without sacrificing food quality or safety.

Though it may seem a contradiction – particularly in the face of a stressed economy – food processors are doing just that through a surprising avenue: capital investment in new equipment that achieves higher efficiencies while it maintains or improving quality and safety standards.

“Sometimes it takes a tough economic climate for people to really appreciate the many practicalities of upgrading their systems and processes,” says Adam Cowherd, vice president of international sales at Unitherm Food Systems, Bristow, Okla. “Under the circumstances improved productivity may be an obvious goal. However, many of our users achieve that while also enhancing product quality and improved food and equipment safety, which can also add significantly to profitability.”

According to Cowherd, there are several areas where deli meat food processors can benefit.

Infrared: profitable pasteurizing
Producers of ready-to-eat meat and poultry, are incorporating food processing technologies that ensure food safety from pathogens. Infrared-based (IR) pasteurization systems have been proven to do this best, while also optimizing color, taste and cooking efficiencies. IR can add appreciable profit margins.

Oklahoma State University researchers Nanditha Gande and Peter Muriana successfully used quick IR surface treatments to significantly reduce  Lysteria and other pathogens on hams, briskets, deli loaves and other products. Using IR pasteurization equipment provided by Unitherm, log reduction of 3 or better was achieved, a measurement the authors said should be viewed both in terms of safety for consumers and recalls for producers.

Those still performing the pasteurization in a hot water bag are also incurring significant additional expense when they repackage ready-to-eat (RTE) products. During the repackaging process the equipment creates a vacuum that draws any surface bacteria down farther into the meat. Conversely, IR pasteurization is performed just prior to packaging, and can eliminate surface pathogens without using a vacuum. Not only is this more efficient and effective, but also saves the cost of the vacuum bag, which can be very significant over even a six-month period.

“Using hot water pasteurization you have to chill and re-heat products,” says Cowherd. “Over time you can imagine how much energy that costs. You’re also using a special bag that costs an extra 3-cents per pound of which really adds up. Because of that re-heating, there is some additional purge that develops inside the bag, and that means additional loss on the product yield. IR pasteurization requires only about 60 seconds, saving considerable processing time as well as providing additional yield. Plus, RTE shelf life can be extended an average of 20-30 percent. All of those benefits of IR pasteurization can add significantly to profit margins.”

For a video of this process online go to:

Savings on browning and smoking
Using a batch oven smokehouse chamber to develop the wanted color and flavor, the industry norm for browning and smoking is about 45 to 90 minutes. The basis for this processing time is the need for a Maillard reaction (a nonenzymatic chemical reaction used in the formation brown pigments) to achieve the desired surface color.

“A Maillard reaction is achievable only at high temperatures, a much higher than what a common smokehouse or batch oven could possibly achieve,” explains Cowherd. “Equipment such as our IR pasteurizers and RapidFlow ovens (which use utilizes high-velocity, high temperature air, combined with super-heated steam) can easily attain those temperatures. That capability makes the liquid smoke ‘color’ very quickly – which saves both time and energy costs.”

Cowherd adds that while it would take more than an hour to smoke a Virginia ham using smokehouse equipment, an in-line oven with high-temperature capabilities can brown and smoke a ham in approximately 10 minutes, providing much-improved throughput as well as energy savings.

Dramatically shortening the smoking process has an even more remarkable effect on product yield. Whereas the industry average for shrinkage using the typical smokehouse method is between 12 and 25 percent, advanced IR or high-velocity steam technology limits shrinkage to between 2-3 percent.

Cowherd says that whether this more advanced and efficient equipment is a retrofit or part of a turnkey system, the equipment can be “bent” to best fit the customer’s needs, as opposed to having the process adjusted to fit the equipment. For example, Unitherm’s patented Vertical Cruster, which can increase yields up to an amazing 90 percent on slicing of meat logs and loaves, can easily be integrated into existing deli systems.

For a video on this process online go to: www.unithermfoodsystems.com/gallery.aspx?id=&pg=1&catid=13&subCat=84&gallery=Videos

Continuous “spiral” cooking and freezing
Conventional batch ovens require multiple, repeated processes that are somewhat wasteful and time-consuming. You have to turn it on, get it up to temperature, install the trolleys and then the product  . . . and later turn it off so that you can take everything out.

In the spiral ovens and steamers you can continuously cook (up to 20,000 lbs. per hour on some models) entire RTE pieces in the bag without shutting down and restarting the oven.

The spiral equipment, which is available in either gas or electric models, constantly runs in a desired temperature range, which is far more energy efficient than the batch oven counterpart. Spiral designs are also considerably more efficient and effective than many thermal oil oven designs. Spiral ovens can be heated up to nearly 500 degrees (F), much hotter than the typical thermal oil oven. Therefore the throughput capacity of spiral ovens can be much greater than thermal oil versions.

Unitherm spiral ovens and steamers include humidity controls, temperature probes and the airflow controls that provide users the ability to manage yields. This ability as well as dramatically improved product throughput, in turn, adds significantly to profit margins.

“Even the smaller footprint of spiral ovens and freezers contributes to savings of space,” Cowherd adds. “Linear ovens of 40 feet in length are common, but less practical than, say, the Mini Spiral oven, which fits in an 8 ft. x 8 ft. x 8ft. space. And that model ships in one piece, so you have much lower installation time and costs.”

For a video of this process online go to: http://www.unithermfoodsystems.com/gallery.aspx?id=&pg=1&catid=7&subCat=38&gallery=Videos