By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
Cooking equipment continues to make strides in improving product quality
One of the ways that time-crunched consumers can maximize their cooking time is to buy pre-cooked products, be it lunchmeat for a quick sandwich or frozen chicken tenders or sausages. That ever-growing source of consumers in a hurry looks very attractive for any meat processor, but it also gives those companies the added responsibility of making sure that the products are cooked right every time.
The importance of an oven or a fryer cannot be understated. “Both have a direct effect on yield and product quality as well as food safety,” says Gerald Lessard, vice president and chief operating officer of West Liberty Foods LLC. “Cooking is an intervention step to eliminate pathogenic bacteria. Improper or inconsistent cooking has a direct impact on food safety. An oven needs to have consistent temperature and humidity throughout the entire cabinet. Anything less than a consistent environment results in a negative impact to product quality and consistency of the finished product.”
For those processors that are involved with the cooked meat, there are a number of options available in terms of size and technologies available. The technology continues to improve and add to the quality of the finished product.
Jim Stonehocker, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Odom’s Tennessee Pride, says that the sausage company has three cook lines in its Little Rock, Ark., facility, as well another in its Dickson, Tenn., plant. The three lines in Little Rock include a fryer and two ovens, and all of them are equipped with a remote heat exchanger. “It takes the actual combustion outside of where your people are working, which provides some safety for the employees,” Stonehocker says. It also improves the product quality. “It eliminates the problem you have with pork when you’re cooking with natural gas and don’t get a complete burn. The natural gas can cause pinking in the meat, even though the meat could have been cooked up to 200 degrees internal temperature.”
That could be especially disastrous for foodservice products, where consumers may complain when they get pork products that look undercooked, even though the products actually have been properly cooked. Another development has been the improvement of the controls for the cooking equipment.
“Control systems utilizing PLC (programmable logic controller) controls and self-diagnosis programming have allowed for a more complete understanding of the equipment’s operations by both maintenance and equipment operators,” Lessard says. Data-tracking software has also increased the processor’s ability to gather information about its products and ensure that everything is within product specifications.
About two years ago, Odom’s brought an infrared oven to its Dickson plant, which was the first infrared oven in the country at the time, Stonehocker notes. One of the advantages he notes is considerable energy savings with the oven over more conventional cookers. Ordinarily, he explains, someone has to come in early and start an oven or a fryer in order to get the oven cabinet or the fryer oil up to the proper temperature. The infrared oven has sensors that detect when product is about to advance into the cooker, and it will turn on. It will also shut off automatically if no new product comes on the conveyor. “That is a huge opportunity for energy savings. You’re not consuming energy when you’re not cooking,” he says.
There is also little to no heat escaping from the oven, which Stonehocker says not only adds to the energy savings but also makes work easier for the people who operate or work around the oven.
“It’s [normally] very hot in the close vicinity of these cookers. You’re making your employees work in an extremely hot environment, or you’re attempting to cool that area down.”
Instead of creating an uncomfortable working environment or requiring the use of extra fans or air conditioners, the infrared oven can operate without affecting the temperature of the area around it. Stonehocker says that one of the problems with ovens in the past has been getting uniform heat from one side of the cooking surface to the other.
“Using the infrared oven, it has light emitters above [the cooking surface], and uniform heat is almost a non-issue. You have uniform heat from side to side, so that problem has been eliminated,” he says.
As with any piece of equipment, productivity is one of the key features of any oven or fryer. In the case of his infrared oven, Stonehocker says that the yield can meet or exceed the company’s oil cooker.
“The advantage this has is that with a fryer, you have hot oil. From a safety perspective, we have no cooking oil,” he says, adding that the lard that renders out in the oven falls through the belt and into a pan of water located below the belt. That lard is then skimmed off and can be sold to a rendering company.
Odom’s Tennessee Pride produces a number of sausage products. The products that are cooked on the infrared oven are formed sausage patties that are added onto a variety of breakfast sandwiches. Stonehocker points out the importance of performance in his cooking equipment.
“A half-percent or a percent difference in yield over the course of a year is significant, so it must perform and deliver that yield.”
Operator comfort is also a key issue.
“If I had to do that job eight or 10 hours a day, five or six days a week, how would I like operating it,” he says.
Stonehocker says that more equipment designers should put themselves in the role of machine operators and design ovens, fryers and other machinery to reduce the stress of the working environment.
West Liberty Foods runs the full gamut of proteins, including turkey, chicken, ham and beef. Its cooked products include a variety of lunchmeat, as well as meatballs, chicken nuggets and fried chicken legs. Lessard says that low cost of operation and user-friendly controls are among the most important features that cooking equipment needs to have.
Stonehocker advises processors that they can’t just buy a cooker. They have to invest in a system that takes the meat, puts it in the needed form and delivers it to the cooker efficiently. Typically, due to belt widths for cookers being different from that of formers, companies had to either use two formers producing products for an oven or use some device to shuttle product around on the belt. Odom’s bought a 40-inch-wide former for its oven.
“We’ve only got one former that is lined up directly in front of it and provides 40 inches of forming every time it stamps out, which is huge for productivity and consistency, because the patties are all from one machine,” Stonehocker says.