“Form Follows Function.” That basic principle of architecture and design applies to the further processing of meat and poultry as well, with modern forming systems that are built for versatility and performance.

Function, of course, ultimately drives all processing systems. In the forming of protein products ranging from traditional hamburger patties and chicken nuggets to increasingly customized products, functionality is a broad definition that spans the multiple and often simultaneous attributes of consistency, size, eye-appeal, volume and sanitation.

Versatility is inexorably tied to multi-functionality. Protein and prepared-foods companies that offer an increasingly wider variety of offerings to their foodservice and retail customers have relied on equipment that allows for more and different types of product runs. And in this economy, the importance of efficiency and performance cannot be understated. Carrie Johnston, brand manager for Advance Brands LLC, Edmond, Okla., agrees.

“That’s exactly it: The more things you can do with one piece of equipment, the better,” she observes. “Manufacturers must look for all of those qualities when purchasing forming equipment. Competition in this industry is so strong it forces manufacturers to weigh all areas equally in order to get the quality of product consumers demand while running efficiently enough to be price competitive.”

Steven Diaz, associate vice president of sales for Oklahoma City-based Lopez Foods Inc., shares the view that versatility is the name of the game.

“As forming efficiency and speed has increased, we have also increased our cooking, freezing and packaging capacities. But as the product line diversifies, versatility is becoming more critical,” he says.

Market driven

The deepening recession may have a particularly strong impact on formed meat products. For one thing, more consumers are eschewing higher-end eateries for quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, at which many formed products are served. In the grocery store, meantime, shoppers are looking for the best value while still keeping an eye on convenience, with ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook formed products fitting the bill. Those who produce formed meat and poultry products have noted the changing buying behavior.

“We are forming more products then in the past because economy has had impact on the consumer trends, and the retail burger business has shown strong increases over the past 12 months,” says Diaz. Johnston agrees that things are picking up for formed products from a macroeconomic standpoint.

“The trend we’re seeing is really an increase in purchase of formed products in today’s economy,” she notes. “We do have a premium whole-muscle [line] as well as a formed line, and we have seen a trend toward value items.”

In addition, she says, today’s consumers are more accepting of the quality of formed meat products, thanks to improvements in taste and consistency. According to Mike Huff, quality assurance manager for Waycross, Ga.-based Flanders Provision Co. LLC, although other product attributes do influence the final form of a product, it’s all about the fundamentals right now.

“It seems to me that today’s consumer is lookingprimarily for more bang for the buck,” he says. “Natural versus home-style, as well as the portion size, is not of as much consequence as the pounds per cost.”

Forming machines built for capacity and efficiency are in demand, then, to keep pace with ever-evolving consumer preferences. Suppliers are developing new systems and tweaking or adding to existing forming lines to provide solutions for processors. Johnston says that for large-scale processors like Advance Brands, workhorse formers ensure efficiency and throughput.

“We are always looking [at ways to improve efficiency] because when you stop is when you get behind,” she says, adding that the company has what they call a “mega line,” considered the fastest former in the industry right now.

Economies of scale notwithstanding, the consumer trade-down to different cuts of meat for the at-home or away-from-home menu does not equal a trade-down in quality expectations. Diaz notes that fully cooked, formed products are doing well, as are more premium types of formed products.

“For example, we strongly believe that next big category to emerge at retail will be fully cooked charbroiled beef patties,” he remarks. “Angus continues to be the buzzword, and graded products have increased in that customers are requesting graded products or have developed graded product programs.”

Johnston points to another shift in the marriage of price point and quality.

“Not only is there expansion in the types of products being formed, there’s a trend toward taking items that were previously whole muscle and offering them in chunked and formed format,” she says.

Making it real

The first forming machines were developed decades ago to make the process more convenient and faster for the user, replacing tedious and unreliable hand-forming. In a bit of 21st century irony, though, one of the biggest trends in forming functions right now is the move toward products that look more hand-formed.

That trend started a few years ago, with the advent of more natural-looking products, such as burgers and chicken strips. Some of the shift away from a cookie-cutter appearance began in the foodservice sector, in quick-service and fast-casual restaurants, and then segued into the retail sector, particularly in frozen, ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat formed products. Those who produce forming equipment agree that in recent years, interest has increased in formed meats that don’t look so, well, formed.

“Natural and home-style are trends we have adapted to recently,” notes Diaz, citing customers like McDonald’s and Carneco who have been producing a greater amount of such products due to consumer interest.

As demand has grown for products that look hand formed, suppliers of forming equipment have responded with new machines and features. For instance, a more natural appearance, with features like uneven edges and even slightly more distinctive textures and shapes, can be achieved through a new forming machine that exerts less pressure or by complementing an existing former with a special conveyor.

One challenge for operators and suppliers is to create formed meat products that look hand made or home style, but still keep up with production realities.

Shaping up

In addition to the ability to handle volume and create finished products that are in line with consumer preferences, the latest forming machines also are equipped to meet one of the other industry trends: the growing array of non-traditional sizes and shapes.

Indeed, sizing up the competition can be taken literally among producers of formed meat products. Following on the heels of the popularity of “little plates” in restaurants and, for that matter, upsized meals in quick-service restaurants, many forming machines are set to produce different sizes.

“Big is ‘in’ in the hamburger world, but ‘mini’ is also a strong trend,” reports Diaz, adding that mini versions of beef and sausage are also hot right now, too. Likewise, Johnston reports that foodservice operators, and to a lesser degree retailers, are looking for a broader mix of sizes.

“I think manufacturers are getting more creative. People are into fun shapes and themed shapes. Anything that’s portable and fun seems to be hot,” she says.

Making it better

True to form, no function is ever perfect. Processors continually look at how to improve their forming capability, whether its finessing ways to make net-weight products, doing more with less or coming up with eye-appealing and palate-appealing shapes and textures. For one thing, there really isn’t a cookie cutter approach to making formed products, given the competitive climate and the diversity of formed proteins on the market.

“Each product has its own set of challenges. Efficiency is always a tradeoff for complexity of product specifications,” comments Diaz. The inherent qualities of certain proteins also can create some challenges in this further-processing step, concludes Huff.

“I have found temperature and lean point of the raw materials the two biggest challenges when forming,” he says.