Net-Weight Gains

by Allison Bardic,
Senior Editor
Increased retail and foodservice demand for precisely-weighed meat and poultry products and consumer cravings for flavorful, convenient foods bolster the portion-control movement.
Once upon a time the idea of paying a premium price for processors to trim and portion meat seemed ridiculous. Those days are over. Today’s meat and poultry processors trim, portion, and pack select cuts for retail and foodservice customers, creating consistent product quality and uniform appearance, reducing product waste, and slashing unnecessary labor requirements. Moreover, portion-controlled products allow operators to order what they need when they need it, reducing opportunities for spoilage.
As for consumers, portion-controlled meat and poultry products appeal to the perpetual desire for convenience in the form of such items as single-serve and resealable product packages, thinly-sliced meats boasting heightened flavor, low-carb options, and increased variety in the meat and deli departments.
Consumer cry for portion control
“Ultra-thin sliced processed meats and sliced whole-muscle products are growing areas, due predominantly to enhanced flavor profiles. The ability to control costs is driving the growth in whole-muscle slicing,” explains Scott Scriven, president of Kansas City, MO-based Weber North America, a division of Breidenbach, Germany’s Weber GmbH, the world’s largest manufacturer of slicing machines for the meat and cheese industries. “Another strong area is overlapped sandwich layouts with cost control as the driver. We are seeing significant interest in automated multiple meat, cheese, and condiment trays for use as one-stop party setups with convenience as the driver.”
Weber provides a full line of processed meat and whole-muscle slicing equipment, from basic slicers capable of 400 rpm to fully-automated 2000 rpm slicers capable of interfacing with horizontal form-fill-seal equipment. The company this month introduced a new entry-level slicer as well as a high-performance slicing system, each featuring completely new designs with advanced sanitation and productivity systems. “These machines are designed to give processors complete flexibility in throughput, level of automation, and presentation options including overlapped sandwich layouts, folded and shingled, stacked, and shaved or fluffed meats,” notes Scriven.
The new equipment introductions include the Model 302, whose compact design and low speed are intended for still-developing food industries around the world. Available with and without a scale, the 302 offers the same features as Weber’s Model 402 entry-level slicer in a smaller format.
On a much larger scale, Weber’s Model 904 is, “from a technological and capacity standpoint the most advanced slicer that we offer,” says Scriven. “It’s a high-volume, high-capacity slicer that features the highest level of hygienic operation and ease of cleaning.”
Pointing out that the 903 [Weber’s fastest, most advanced slicer] is several generations ahead of any other slicer in the industry today, and the 904 raises the bar again — Scriven stresses that cost control, presentation flexibility, and flavor profiles will likely continue to drive demand for portion-controlled products.
Among other consumer trends boosting portion control, Mokena, IL-based Formax® points to the popularity of low-carb diets, prompting processors to create a broad array of bunless and breadless center-of-the-plate items such as chicken and turkey wraps, salads topped with chicken breasts and peppercorn steak, and bacon.
“Formax’s Verti-Form® filling system is a shining example of how the company is impacting the low-carb market with portion-controlled products. Verti-Form facilitates the development of center-of-the-plate items such as strip steaks, chicken fried steaks, and entrées that are secondarily sliced or diced such as fajitas, wraps, and protein-filled salad topping, says Brian Sandberg,
director of marketing, Formax. “The same goes for poultry with Formax’s popular Port-Fill® and Poultry-Plus®. Port-Fill is Formax’s filling system for dip-able items like chicken nuggets and chicken selects. By adding Poultry-Plus, appetizing breast-shaped portions can be formed and used as salad toppings with the natural shape consumers prefer.”
Sandberg also stresses that smaller-sized deli meat packages will continue to gain popularity as young single and empty-nester households rise. Formax’s DS180™ Depositing System, for example, answers that need, while its FX180® Variety Pack line addresses consumer preferences with its ability to preassemble variety packs or sandwich setups containing three, four, and up to six flavors of meat.
“And [the FX180’s] ability to slice, assemble, and autoload them in accurate, exact-weight portions is essential in today’s competitive marketplace,” Sandberg says. “It’s an idea driven by consumers who want more value and serving options for their sandwich dollar. In effect, variety packs are the
consumer’s choice and are perfect for making submarine sandwiches with the flavors and tastes customers prefer.”
Other recent, notable innovations from Formax include the new Maxum700™ forming machine, featuring a rigid one-piece pump box, servo mold plate and knock-out drive systems, and pivoting product hopper. “Exacting portion control is further assured by a tri-flow horizontal tube valve that provides uniform, repeatable product weights across the width of the mold plate,” Sandberg says.
The Maxum’s servo mold plate drive system is robust and can generate speeds up to 120 strokes per minute at production rates up to 8,000 pounds per hour. Precise product placement on downstream conveying systems is guaranteed by its servo knock-out drive system, and its knock-out cup motion profile is fully adjustable to specific product parameters, further optimizing product quality on a product-by-product basis. The number of components for both the mold plate and knock-out drives also is minimized to ensure reliable operation and reduce the amount of required maintenance.
Formax’s new SNS® Slicing System and Autoloader for bacon and naturally-shaped meats, meanwhile, uses lasers and cameras to generate a three-dimensional image of the product prior to slicing. This advanced portioning technology is designed for processors who want greater yields, uniform slice integrity, and greater customer loyalty. “The unique scan-and-slice approach is a key cost-saving measure as bacon sales trend higher and processors focus more closely on improving customer satisfaction,” says Sandberg. “With Formax, processors can develop competitive new products whether they are sliced or shaved, stacked or shingled, single packs, variety packs, party trays, or sandwich set-ups. Formax’s slicing systems employ the world’s most advanced weighing technologies, making them ideal for processors slicing luncheon meats, bacon, and naturally shaped products. Portion control is a key reason Formax Slicing Systems keep sales on the rise.”
On the foodservice side, in particular, new “naturally shaped” chicken-breast burgers and sandwiches are among those products driving growth in demand for accurate and fast portion-control machines such as Marel USA Inc.’s Template Slicing Machine (TSM), adds Einar Einarsson, president of Marel USA, a Lenexa, KS-based subsidiary of Iceland’s Marel hf, a leading manufacturer of weighing and grading equipment, computer vision systems, intelligent portioning machines, and total-solution processing systems.
The TSM cuts non-frozen poultry fillets or butterflies into portions of certain weights and shapes defined by chosen templates. “The result is a value-added identical product plus trimmings,” Einarsson says, noting that each template is for a single butterfly, a single large and split breast fillet, or two small split breast fillets (left and right fillet).
Weighty Matters at Retail
Increased retailer demand for exact-weight meat and poultry products is another major driver in the portion-control category. “The move toward packing in net weight in the retail market is something that we have seen in Europe for several years,” observes Joe O’Neill, area sales manager, meat division, Scanvaegt US Inc., a Gainesville, GA-based subsidiary of Denmark’s Scanvaegt International. “This is something that will only increase in the United States over the next few years, making accurate and efficient portion-control systems essential for producers.”
Most recently, Scanvaegt unveiled its DreamBatcher™ concept for weighing and batching at high speeds to extreme accuracies, offering a capacity of up to 360 pieces-per-minute per line. The concept comprises a twin automatic or semi-automatic infeed system that conveys parts to a twin high-speed precision weighing unit, passing the weighed parts to the specially-designed compact separator and packing unit. It can prepare huge volumes of tray-pack portions to a target weight with give-away averaging 1 percent or less.
“We continually strive to improve our portion-control systems as we know that every time we can improve the producers’ yield by even a fraction of 1 percent, this represents a valuable return on investment,” O’Neill stresses.
Chris Mason, AEW THURNE Inc., Lake Zurich, IL, also points to net-weight case-ready products as a trend primed to explode in the red-meat industry. “Retailers like Wal-Mart are driving the trend, primarily for its ability to simplify inventory control and increase sales volume. This trend is driving the necessity for greater accuracy in cutting of not only boneless products, but also bone-in products,” Mason notes. “We [AEW Delford Systems, the combined AEW THURNE and Delford Sortaweigh] have the capability to automatically and extremely accurately cut both types of primal materials to weight. Our systems have the ability to manage these portions downstream: placing them into a wide variety of exact-weight tray-pack configurations, including brother-sister chops/steaks, and variety packs, all with a high degree of labor efficiency.”
Mason contends that net-weight tray-pack beef and pork are most driving new product development at both the processor and the systems supplier levels. The technology behind cutting boneless steaks and chops to weight is fairly well developed, he contends, while the ability to incorporate these into highly automated lines for net-weight case-ready is not. “AEW Delford is focused today, therefore, on systems designed to provide the highest possible level of automation with the lowest ‘give-aways’ possible for net-weight tray-packed boneless and bone-in SKUs,” he says.
Recent developments at AEW Delford have focused on case ready, as well as on continuing to improve the accuracy and robust design of the company’s three-dimensional imaging system for portion control. The company also has introduced a slicing system for case-ready beef and pork, known as the Polyslicer Plus, which is capable of automatically cutting and styling groups of shingled chops or steaks to meet the need for improved labor efficiency and thin-cut case-ready products.
“[The Polyslicer Plus] can automatically present these groupings to a tray de-nesting system, thus vastly improving labor efficiencies,” says Mason. “And it can do this with very thin cuts — down to paper-thin slices of fresh eye rounds, top butts, chuck rolls, pork chops, and other beef and pork products — meeting the demands of Asian and Latin American consumers, while maintaining very high production yields.”
For its part, Marel USA has introduced the IPM III LaserEye and Platino 800 flattener system for cutting strips of poultry. The processing system produces strips of uniform length, width, and height with unmatched accuracy. “A combination of flattening, automatic pre-cutting, and portioning results in maximum performance and high yield,” Einarsson says. “Test runs have produced up to 100-percent usable portions with no cut-off. The benefits of the Marel Strip Cut System include minimum giveaway and maximum yield of usable strips.”
Specifically, the Platino 800 flattener is used to obtain the correct thickness of chicken fillets before portioning. Fillets are flattened with a kneading technology that prevents the meat from shrinking back to its original size. After flattening, the chicken breast goes through the first IPM III where it is pre-cut for the second process. The pre-cutter intelligently decides if zero, one, or two strips are cut from the fillet at a pre-selected angle. This process creates portions of the right length for the second cutting process. On the second IPM III, the pre-cut breast is rotated and cut again. Laser-light guides are used to ensure the correct angle, resulting in high yield of uniform strips.
“Suitable for use with meat, poultry, and fish, the IPM lll LaserEye is an ideal solution for the high-value portioning of portions to predefined shapes and weights,” says Einarsson. “User-friendly, reliable, and highly versatile, it uses the latest in 3D laser-vision technology to automatically evaluate each piece before cutting, and then calculates the most economic cut configuration based on parameters pre-selected by the production manager.” Marel’s dual lane Marel Portio 4002, meanwhile, allows for vertical, butterfly, and split-cut portioning and fixed weights at high speeds and low costs. The machine cuts fixed-weight portions of meat and meat products, including beef, pork, veal, and poultry, in nearly every consistency, at the high speed of 2,000 to 4,000 cuts per hour per lane, allowing processors to meet the needs of a competitive and demanding marketplace.
“Portion-ready meat is placed into the Portio 4002 in its original shape. It is then compressed in a mold tube, ensuring that the top and bottom of the meat has an even surface, maximizing fixed-weight precision, yield, and output,” says Einarsson. “The Portio 4002 is extremely flexible. It makes different portioning cuts for weight and shape easily through the simple use of different mold sets.”
In its efforts to increase portion-control accuracy, Piscataway, NJ-based Bizerba USA Inc., a subsidiary of German parent company Bizerba GmbH, recently introduced both stand-alone portion-control checkweighers and integrated checkweighers with multi-labeling capabilities. Signaling from the units can be sent via numerous data communication channels to upstream portioning-control equipment or to line personnel to accurately adjust product releases and maintain the standards for the product line. The company’s portion-control signaling takes into account line ramp up variances, signal delay to account for linear delays between action and reaction weighing, and integration with other new technology portioning systems.
“The opportunity for processor or manufacturers is to construct systems that are compatible, yet flexible. In other words, it doesn’t make sense to utilize a checkweigher to provide portion-control signals to an upstream portioning machine that is unable to accept the accuracies of the signal being received,” explains Dean Dunlap, national sales manager-industrial, Bizerba USA. “For instance, some Bizerba checkweighers can send portion signaling via our portion-control software upstream to portioning equipment at one gram or sub-one gram increments. The same is true in reverse with portion-control equipment that can control at very fine levels, but are getting less than optimum signaling or poorly timed signaling.”
Carmine Caparaso, director of marketing for Norwalk, CT-based Treif USA, notes that high speed and precision are the highest priorities regarding portion control. The company’s Puma CE series offers “universal” cutting, from deli meats and cheese, to virtually any boneless product, to bone-in pork loins. Slicing speed ranges from 200 to 600 rpm, and all cuts are based on precise thickness (not exact weight). The Divider Economic 400, a precision stacking/shingling machine, offers a maximum speed of 400 rpm (up to 1,600 slices per minute when loading multiple products), and in the stacking mode an integrated elevator raises to meet the slice, then lowers accordingly for subsequent slices. The Falcon is Treif’s exact-weight machine, which uses dual scanners to take a 360-degree scan of product. Upon reaching the user-set weight parameters, the knife engages for precise cutting.
“The demand for exact-weight products is growing, however, I think this is more for the HRI [Hotel, Restaurant and Institution] industry for consumer retailer,” Caparaso suggests. “Consumer/retail meats seem to be case ready. Having said that, the deli departments in many supermarkets are providing prepackaged deli meats and cheese, so that may be a growing trend.”
Technology suppliers participating in this feature include:
- Weber North America, phone (800) 505-9591 or (816) 891-0072, or visit
- Formax® Inc., phone (708) 479-3500, fax (708) 479-3598, or visit
- Marel USA Inc., phone (913) 888-9110, fax (913) 888-9124, or visit
- AEW THURNE Inc., phone (847) 726-8000, fax (847) 726-1600, or visit
- Bizerba USA Inc., phone (732) 819-0121, fax (732) 819-0429, or visit
- Treif USA Inc., phone (203) 847-9699, fax (203) 849-8517, or visit
- Scanvaegt US Inc., phone (770) 536-3495, fax (770) 536-9578, or visit