Hamming it Up

By Lisa White

Improved food safety, better product consistency and increased processing speeds are results of today’s ham-processing technology innovations.

Manufacturers agree that there have not been many big changes in ham-processing technology over the last several years. But this doesn’t mean there hasn’t been new developments, improvements and worthy achievements in this segment.
According to Ron Crawford, sales manager at Red Arrow Products Co., a Manitowoc, Wis.-based ingredient and equipment supplier, trends in ham processing are heading in several different directions.
“Food safety is a primary driver, as it is with all processed-meat products. New packaging and cooking technologies are being driven by the quest to develop a fully cooked-in package,” he says. Product consistency also is at the forefront in this segment.
“Pre-smoked fibrous casings have been utilized and perfected over the years on boneless hams to improve throughput, yields and color consistency,” Crawford says. “Pre-smoked plastic and plastic laminates are being developed and improved and are replacing fibrous offerings at a rapid pace.
“The hermetic package created with plastic casings takes the food-safety aspects to a new level. Many products are being shipped to retail in the package that they were processed in, making the product as safe and stable as possible,” he adds.
These developments have centered on ham’s cold-processing system. This is where ham muscle is brought into the plant at about 34 F and injected with a solution, such as salt water, phosphate or flavorings. During this process, the meat warms up.
Ham is then released from the massagers or tumblers when it is in the mid or low 40-degree range. This allows the meat’s proteins to become more soluble. The muscles also are more pliable at lower temperatures, which produces a better outcome with forming equipment.
Water cooking in a plastic casing or rollstock-formed, cook-in package — a process formerly used with boiled hams — is another process that is growing in popularity, Crawford says.
“Processors are now stripping the same type of hams from the cook-in package, drenching or showering them with natural liquid smoke, re-heating the hams quickly at high temperatures to drive the smoke reaction, and then rapidly chilling and final packing,” he says.
According to John Sbraga, co-owner of Nu-Meat Technology, a meat-processing machinery supplier based in Plainfield, N.J., there was a time when some companies switched to a warming technique that they thought would help advance ham curing. This system would then drop the meat’s temperature for protein extraction and massaging.
“This process has run its course, because the risk-to-benefit wasn’t what meat processors expected,” he says. “When meat is warmed up, it creates a better medium for bacterial growth. The pathogens [with this system] were riskier business than people wanted to deal with.”
Today’s newer methods of ham production are more or less modifications or vast improvements of methods that have been around for years, says Crawford.
“Water cooking has been taken to new levels with updated equipment and controls, as has chilling,” he explains. “The scale of all processing equipment has increased and has allowed for increased production speeds with precision control of processing parameters. Linear ovens have taken on a large role in boneless ham production. Stationary smokehouses are also not what they used to be.
“Coupled with new innovations in cures, ingredients and flavors, these equipment improvements have propelled ham processing to state-of-the-art levels,” he says.
Food safety improvements
One of the hottest technologies that has had an impact on food safety in ham processing is post-packaging pasteurization, or PPP. This is when bagged product is put through a hot-water pasteurization process at 200 F for between two and five minutes and then chilled. The process helps eliminate surface bacteria and can improve product shelf life 20 to 30 percent.
Seth Pulsfus, technical service research and development manager at Alkar-RapidPak, based in Lodi, Wis., says his company is working on a PPP system geared for mid-size processors. “We formerly only offered large, complex systems for bigger processors,” he says.
The prevention of excess condensation is a regulatory issue and can compromise food safety. Equipment supplier Wolf-tec, located in Kingston, N.Y., has insulation between the cooling/heating jackets and exposed surfaces of its brine manufacturing equipment and Polar Massagers to help protect against dripping condensation.
“If the equipment is not properly insulated, condensation can drip onto the floor,” says Dale Hunt, technical processing manager. “Wolf-Tec is one of the few companies that jackets and insulates its equipment. It is more costly in manufacturing, but it is the right thing to do.”
Increased efficiency
Along with food-safety improvements, ham processors have been looking for ways to reduce workloads on the line and create more efficiency.
In response to this need, some equipment manufacturers have created units that provide increased flexibility. For example, Des Moines, Iowa-based Townsend offers a skinner that can adapt to perform different applications.
“Processors are looking for ham-processing equipment that has lower maintenance and operating costs. Our SK 11-300 Series has 40 percent fewer moving parts, so it is easier to maintain. The ergonomics also are improved to make it easier on operators,” says Jeff Pick, sales engineer.
The benefits of flexible equipment also include lower capital or overhead costs because one machine can be used for a multitude of tasks and/or products.
In addition, production speed has increased with ham processing. Chad Anderson at Momentumthree in Green Bay, Wis., touts the high capacity of Wolf-tec’s Armor Inox system, which takes the age-old concept of cooking in water tanks and puts high-end transfer technology behind it.
“Large cooking tanks are filled with a mix of hot, warm and cold water from storage tanks to produce exact temperatures easily and quickly,” he says. “When this system is used with color transfer or enhanced smoke or browning plastic casings, the result is a very high-capacity production system.”
With this process, there is no yield loss, and, due to the plastic casing barrier, food safety is enhanced.
Processing time also can be dramatically cut back by utilizing pre-smoked nets, which eliminate lengthy drying and traditional smoking steps. According to Crawford, pre-smoked nets are growing in popularity for bone-in and semi-boneless ham versions. “These nets improve throughput, yields and color consistency,” he says.
Another benefit of increased efficiencies is increased yields. Overland Park, Kan.-based Marlen Research Group offers pump and portioner lines that accommodate longer logs.
“We’re seeing an increase in slicing yields with whole-muscle ham processing, and the result is longer logs,” says Jarrod McCarroll, director of sales and marketing. “Our pump handles whole-muscle product gently and features a twin piston design. Its volume is 34,000 pounds per hour. We also have a 60- pound exact-weight portioner to accommodate larger slicing logs.”
Marlen also offers a semi-automatic ham mold system for processors who cannot yet invest in a fully automated system.
Better consistency
There have been a number of recent innovations that have focused on improving product consistency in ham processing. Pulsfus says the oven-control process has improved, providing better consistency from batch to batch.
“We have a true hold on the thermal processing conditions in the smokehouse and know if there are deviations in the process,” he says. This is done by logging information and keeping a closer tab on the process. Specifically, Alkar’s newest technology reduces the smoking time.
“In the past, it has taken between three and six hours to naturally smoke ham in our oven,” Pulsfus says. “We now have equipment that applies the same smoke and flavoring to the meat in under 10 minutes. This also offers a more consistent color, better yield characteristics and makes batch ovens more productive.”
In the area of brine makeup, Hunt says he is seeing a lot more control with the use of bar codes. With this process, ingredients contain individual bar codes and brine manufacturing equipment is equipped with a scanner to verify that the correct ingredients are being used in the proper amounts.
“In the past, processors relied on manual verification. Now these things are being verified correctly with bar-code scanning,” Hunt says. “For example, if a processor scans an incorrect ingredient or the wrong amount, the system will not let the operator continue. Also the system validates that each ingredient is mixed to the required specifications for temperature, time and rpm for example. If a processor injects 10,000 pounds of meat with a brine that is not made to specification, that is a costly mistake.”
This system, which uses software linked to bar-code scanners, is not complicated to implement or use and helps prevent recalls and costly errors. The bar codes are placed on ingredient bags and contain information such as a type of ingredient, tracking number, code number and weight. “This system also enhances traceability and helps management ensure that [the plant is operating as it should be],” Hunt says.
In many cases, equipment revisions have resulted in a better quality product. One example of this is a whole-muscle ham stuffer that has been available for the last 10 years from Easton, Mass.-based Risco USA. According to Paul Kean, vice president of sales, the fully vacuumized stuffer has been revised and is now able to release any gas in the ham so the product is more dense. This improves meat yield and maintains the product’s integrity.
For hand processors, Nu-Meat Technologies offers equipment with a tenderizing mallet for striking meat after it has been injected. Sbraga says the two-year-old line is beginning to catch on with ham processors.
As in other segments, the quest for clean labels and all-natural qualification exists in this segment. Crawford says it can be difficult for conventional ham processors to comply, due to the nature of ham products being fully cured and preserved with ingredients such as sodium nitrite, sodium phosphates and sodium erythorbate.
“The industry is awaiting another USDA comment period for review of an industry petition to clarify and better define the guidelines for producing natural processed meat products,” he says. In the meantime, the latest technologies make it easier for processors to control the pumps and cook yields to maintain compliance with labeling issues, Crawford says.
Flavoring innovations
Along with technology that has enhanced product consistency, new innovations in natural liquid smoke flavors have lead to flavor profiles that are indistinguishable from traditional smoke, Crawford says.
“The latest manufacturing technologies and advanced understanding of the browning and flavor profiles created in the combustion process have lead to state-of-the-art products that are difficult, if not impossible, to differentiate from traditional smoke,” he explains.
He adds that smoke flavors are available in many forms for maximum utilization to the processor. Water-soluble, neutralized products are available for brine formulation and internal injection. A wide selection of natural liquid smokes are also available for atomization, water-soluble versions for drenching and smoke products for use in smoke-coating fibrous, plastic casings and smoke nets.
“New offerings, such as fruit wood smokes in cherry and apple varieties, and the latest traditional smokehouse flavors, allow for brand expansions and new product offerings, particularly in the specialty and high-end arenas,” Crawford says. Red Arrow will customize smoke products to meet a processor’s flavor, application and functional needs.
Sbraga says the ham-processing industry is always looking for the next trendy flavor that will appeal to consumers and help promote their products and the company overall. “It is unpredictable what the next hot item will be, with all of the flavors out there,” he says.
Looking ahead
Although manufacturers would not provide specific details on new technologies that are on the horizon, they revealed that there are exciting developments that will soon be unveiled.
“We are working on a technology that allows processors to have consistent control over the entire meat-processing system, from raw material to the end result. It will tie everything together,” Pulsfus says. Hunt predicts the ham processing industry will see even more automation in the years ahead.
“For instance, we now have the ability to scan raw material [meat] bar codes before product comes through the injectors. And the whole ham-processing line — massagers, injectors and brine-making equipment — has been linked and is communicating,” he says. There will be even more verification in the future that will further en-hance product consistency and quality.
“Process verification is the future. This is verifying that the system (and people) are doing what it is designed to do and meeting the plant’s SOP. Plants will use report forms that management can check on a daily basis to determine what the whole system is doing and confirm that equipment is running in the way it was designed to run,” Hunt says.
Wolf-tec is focusing on an inline process that increases labor efficiencies without the use of forklifts. Traditionally, meat is held overnight after it is injected. This involves more labor, because product needs to be loaded into vats to be held until the next day. With this new system known as “Temperature Guided Processing”, meat is processed, molded and cooked in the same line on the same day. Hunt says equipment design also is focusing on enhancing food safety.
“Many years ago, the theory was, if meat was cooked, food safety wasn’t an issue. Now equipment design has changed to make sure all parts are accessible for cleaning. Cleanability and sanitation are huge in today’s equipment design,” he says.
Crawford agrees that food safety improvements will continue to be paramount with ham processing in the years ahead. “To a certain degree, this goes hand-in-hand with the country’s growing environmental concerns,” he says. “Many processors are feeling the pressure to convert to new technologies to eliminate clashing with regulatory agencies and reduce emissions output. Typically, a benefit of working to improve these areas results in an improvement in throughput, yields and consistency of the product. These are all factors that are tangible on the bottom line.”
He adds that advancements in production and food safety technologies will yield cost reductions, decreased energy use and the decline of environmental risks, while improving worker safety. “Improvements will continue in ingredient development, shelf-life extension and organoleptic properties of ham,” Crawford says.
McCarroll says as processors continue to sense and understand the needs of their customers, the innovation to achieve those needs is being driven back to the suppliers.
“It is the suppliers who are working closely with the processors that will be ahead of that next opportunity,” he says.
With these new innovations, the future of ham processing promises systems that are easier to clean and sanitize, allow for quicker processing times, provide a more flavorful product and produce a higher quality, more consistent product for consumers.