Full Speed Ahead
By Lynn Petrak, special projects editor
High-volume systems kick into gear for sausage making, from processing to cooking to packaging.
It’s been said — and not just by sausage makers — that there is a certain art to making sausage, requiring a deft combination of meat and seasonings and steps like blending, stuffing, tying, hanging and, sometimes, smoking or cooking.
In the past, it was a painstaking art, with much of the work done by hand. Although machinery took much of the work out of it decades ago, the art of sausage making today has evolved into more of science.
High-volume processing systems reflect the shift toward the technological. Although automation is nothing new to this industry, the sophistication of automated processing systems continues to improve, allowing sausage companies to produce greater volumes of sausages than ever.
The reasons processors invest in high-volume machinery often starts, obviously enough, with the desire for more throughput. “High-volume frank and sausage systems are the backbone of our organization’s output,” reports Ron Fink, vice president of operations for Kunzler & Co., Inc., of Lancaster, Pa. “Certainly, economies of scale and our ability to leverage large-volume accounts bode favorably in our ability to leverage procurement strategy in all categories, including protein, packaging and labor spends.”
At Columbus, Ohio-based Bob Evans Farms, senior vice president of operations Earl Beery also reports that greater demand in part has led the company to invest in high-volume systems. “We do a lot of volume in links, rolls and patties, as well as chubs,” he says of demand for its sausage products, destined for both the retail market and the company’s own chain of restaurants.
Although many large sausage companies have revamped their lines to include new high-volume systems to keep up with production due to their large distribution networks, such setups are in place in mid-size and regional processors as well, allowing them to stay competitive. Kunzler & Co. is one of those mid-sized companies that decided to ramp up production on its way to being a larger player in the category. “Consolidation within the industry and a general lack of new entrants to the production of franks and sausages have been catalysts to our growth. Fortunately, these opportunities lay in a segment where a medium-sized family-owned corporation can compete on a global basis,” says Fink.
Likewise, as Milwaukee-based Klement’s Sausage Company, Inc. expanded national distribution of its own brand, enhanced its private-label business and worked to sell more of its sausages into professional sports stadiums, company operators opted for high-volume processing equipment to help them do it. “We went from hand linking and casing items to automatic linking machines, for example,” recalls Jim McKusker, vice president of plant engineering. “That allowed us to greatly increase our productivity, because when were doing it before by hand, it was labor intensive and slow, and we didn’t get a uniform product. The links were close in length and weight but varied a bit.”
Those comments reveal another pivotal and common reason that sausage manufacturers have made room in their budgets and floorplans for systems that can handle more volume. “One issue was quality — we looked at the equipment out there and said, ‘What will give us a better quality product?’” recalls Beery.
Beery draws a distinction between traditional sausage and frankfurters, in terms of the best usage and type of high-volume machinery. “It’s tough for fresh sausage because we’re not looking for just high numbers or counts per hour — we look at quality. We sell on eye appeal, and want it to look fresh and appetizing,” he explains. “If you are in the sausage business for hot dogs, though, you want high numbers for pounds per hour. That’s a different need.”
Kunzler & Co, for its part, went with a high-volume system that could accommodate both franks and sausages. “Our goal has been and [still is] to leverage our high-volume frank potential to create opportunities in other product segments. And we view the high-volume production of sausages as a core competency protected with a competitive advantage, realized through quality assurance and manufacturing controls programs,” comments Fink.
Both quantity and quality were issues as well for New York Style Sausage Company, headquartered on the West Coast, in Sunnyvale, Calif. “We were looking for modern machines that were easier to run and equipment that also makes the sausage better looking,” says Pasquale Bitonti, chief operating officer and vice president of manufacturing and distribution, of the processor’s recent investment in new high-speed stuffing machines and linkers for its specialty sausage products.
Through the use of automation and controls, high-volume systems for sausage production have other benefits beyond tonnage and consistency. One of them is the fact that such systems set up an additional barrier against the spread of microbiological contamination. Equipment geared for high-volume, high-speed production is often designed with clean-in-place (CIP) features, which enhance effective sanitation and food safety.
“You’re always looking for ways to improve food safety, so sanitation is important,” says Beery. “The new equipment is easy to dismantle and put together and is easier to clean, because there are not a lot of parts to harbor contamination.”
From a safety standpoint, the use of automated high-volume systems also helps reduce product handling by employees. From a plant efficiency standpoint, meanwhile, reduced or redirected labor is another benefit that can arise from the shift to high-volume sausage processing systems. “The ability to minimize labor cost from the cost of goods sold is also inherent to large-volume production,” observes Fink.
Working to capacity
Certainly, there are many choices when it comes to high-volume systems used for sausage production. Some suppliers offer integrated features like in-line grinding or stuffers that automatically deliver product to clipping machines or linkers. In addition, many machinery manufacturers continue to develop new models that can accommodate greater production runs at faster speeds.
To meet growing demand for traditional core products like chubs and links, Bob Evans regularly reviews new high-volume equipment on the market. “We’ll look at four or five options every time. You just have to say, ‘What can we put in there that will work and give us the best return on the dollar?’” says Beery. “You must look at what the heart of the system will be — is it the stuffer, grinder, portioner or packaging system — and add to that.”
Most recently, according to Beery, Bob Evans purchased new stuffers and grinders that meet the company’s goal of both improving quality and boosting production. Processing-floor upgrades are also on the company’s radar. “We’ve had a couple of additions to the plant in the past couple of years and are looking at expanding again in a couple of years from now,” he adds.
As it ramps up production to grow its business with retail and foodservice customers, Kunzler also has upgraded its high-volume equipment. The company recently refurbished the packaging room portion of its largest continuous system with state-of-the-art loaders and packaging machines. “That allows us to market one- to six-pound packages with press-to-seal zipper packaging. We see this as a distinct competitive advantage delivering value-added product to the marketplace,” explains Fink, adding that the new equipment configuration allowed Kunzler to launch a new Authentic Select line of smoked sausages including flavors like 5 Pepper Flavor, Ragin’ Cajun-Hot, and Jalapeno and Cheddar, among others.
At Klement’s, McKusker reports that the latest additions to its higher-volume line included high-speed packaging machines and a new type of clipping machine for summer sausage chubs. “That was all knifework before, so this machine replaced three or four people’s work,” he says. In addition, Klement’s has installed large-diameter fresh meat grinders and large frozen-block grinders to better mix frozen and fresh product during processing.
New York Sausage Company, too, continues to invest in the latest equipment geared for greater volume as well as durability and consistency, including a new series of stuffing machines and linkers. “We’re looking for speed, but it doesn’t just handle more product — it makes the sausage look better,” points out Bitonti.
Adding volume, adding valueIn addition to processing raw or fresh sausage, sausage companies also find themselves in the business of making meals, especially breakfast and snack sandwiches and burritos. “We do a lot of sandwich items. The market for convenience has taken product in fully cooked form [and put it] in a package that can be microwaved,” explains Beery.
To that end, Bob Evans, along with its subsidiary, Richardson, Texas-based Owens Country Sausage, recently upgraded a plant in Sulphur Springs, Texas, dedicated to the production of convenience foods. The $4 million, 52,777-square-foot facility is capable of producing 18 million pounds annually.
Odom’s Tennessee Pride, of Madison, Tenn., has also directed its efforts on assembly of sandwiches made with sausages. Last year, the company began work on a 33,000-square-foot expansion of its plant in Dickson, Tenn., which will enable Odom’s to double its capacity from four to eight assembly and packaging lines for sandwiches.