Meat and poultry producers are going high tech. Looking to strengthen operating efficiencies while developing products with higher and more consistent quality, plant operators increasingly embrace automated systems.

The evolution includes leveraging a new generation of mixers that allows plants to more accurately add ingredients while maintaining precise operating cycles and reducing human interaction. Such equipment includes computer-controlled machines with digital displays.

Processors often use mixers to blend meat with spices in a uniform manner and to extract proteins from the meats. Substandard technologies and processes can result in products with inferior taste, flavor and texture along with sluggish plant throughputs.

“Proper mixing is one of the most overlooked steps in meat and poultry processing plants,“ says Chris Fuller, president of Fuller Consulting, a San Diego-based red meat advisory firm. “There are many styles of mixers with different operating specifications. Not following the proper specs can impact product quality and plant productivity.”

Because running a mixer too fast is likely to “beat up” meat and a sluggish pace can slow plant operations, it is important that protein producers use equipment that is easy to program and operate and has settings that are certain to be accurate.

A newer way to reduce mishaps

“Automation will eliminate the need for workers to stare at a stopwatch to gage the proper run time or when to add ingredients to mixers,” says Rodrigo Tarté, assistant professor of meat science in the Department of Animal Science at Iowa State University in Ames. “The ability to respond at the right moment is a key element and there can be problems if workers are distracted during their procedures.”

To help minimize miscues, vendors are developing mixers with more programmable components that are “foolproof“ to operate, he says. “Automation is helping to prevent machine operators from over-mixing or under-mixing batches,” Tarté says. 

Additional functionally enables the steady flow of the precise amount of ingredients into mixers for more stable processing and extrusion rates, says Mark Miller, professor of meat science in the Department of Animal and Food Sciences at Texas Tech University in Lubbock.

Among such ingredients are fats and lipids, which when properly handled, “makes the products more nutritionally uniform to meet both the regulatory guidelines and what consumers are expecting,” he says.

While newer technologies are reducing the role of workers in mixing procedures, there still is a need for personnel who can skillfully handle the equipment.

“It is crucial that all mixer operators are properly trained and that they understand the different ways to deal with the various proteins,” Tarté says. “Humans tend to run on cruise control, which is why it is important to automate machinery. Having to handle a variety of products with unique mixing protocols can result in mistakes.”

Workers who understand and can manage the newer technologies, meanwhile, will always be in demand, Miller says.

“Plants must have technically trained workers with a higher skill set to support the increase in automation,” he says. “It is not rocket science, but evolving systems will require that there are enough employees with the ability to control the equipment.”

Other possible benefits from the greater use of automation are a reduction in the threat of cross-contamination by personnel during processing, the development of products with more uniform blends and machines that are easier to clean and have more straightforward temperature controls. 

“The bonding of protein to the fat will break down if the mixer is too warm and it can result in product shrinkage and items with a dry or grainy texture,” Fuller says.

Money well spent

While some operators may face costly renovations to accommodate newer mixing equipment, Miller says improvements to product quality and greater plant operating efficiencies will likely justify such expenses.

More meat and poultry companies, meanwhile, also will gravitate to the newer machinery as prices for the technologies decline, Fuller says.

He notes that engineering advances, greater competition among vendors and added activity from Chinese supplies are resulting in more affordable options.

“Machines are becoming more accessible,” Fuller says. “What previously might have been outside the budget of small or mid-size processors may now be cost effective. Manufacturers are seeing a market for products with a lower price point and are going after it.”

Future rollouts, meanwhile, could include a wide range of mixing equipment that operates at higher speeds, Tarté says.

“Meat and poultry companies are always looking to mix faster and that is the next frontier,” he says. “Time is money and the shorter period that plants can spend with mixing, the fewer bottlenecks are likely to occur in their processing procedures.”

Newer designs, meanwhile, also are likely to support a variety of functions along with mixing, such as grinding and stuffing, Fuller says.

“Integrating different elements into a single machine will help eliminate concerns about how the individual pieces of equipment can fit together in plants,” Fuller says. “But it is most important to educate processors about the importance of mixing if they want to have the highest quality meat products.” NP