Packers and processors put safety and integrity of the product first. As such, that is the top priority of major slicing operations, and companies have many other key attributes to a well-sliced protein.

A slicer of premium deli meats, Charlie’s Pride, Vernon, Calif., slices its meat in 2-pound increments.

“The reason being is that it creates a more consistent slice when you cook like products, and also you have a very similar internal temperature and finish to the product,” says Jim Dickman, Charlie’s Pride’s co-owner and CEO. To aid consistency, Charlie’s Pride places a tight net and bag on raw materials to shape the protein.

“We do a lot of things to help shape the product, because when you have a natural muscle product versus a section and form, it has a unique shape and you want to put it into a shape where you get consistent slices,” Dickman says. “When you go to slice your finished product for the customers, from their point of view, they want to see consistent end-to-end slicing.”

The product also needs to be at an appropriate temperature of well below 40 degrees Fahrenheit to facilitate high-speed slicing.

“If the product is undercooked it might jiggle around a little bit on the slicer,” Dickman says. “You want a product that is firmly cooked, not only for safety reasons but also for slicing-consistency reasons.”

Clemens Food Group, Hatfield, Pa., also strives for consistent thickness and weights with a standard deviation of 1 percent. Equipment needs to have the capabilities to give multiple thickness selections and multiple weight settings on a single cut of protein, says Michael Bracrella, vice president of facilities at Clemens Food Group.

For bone-in meats, a nice clean cut on the bone with no bone dust or splintering also is required. For boneless meats, a clean cut is necessary, Bracrella says.

“There is a lot of technology out there for cutting boneless proteins,” he explains. “The biggest challenge that we see is automated technology for cutting bone-in proteins that do not require freezing of the protein, that offer good yield capabilities, and that do not splinter or have excessive bone dust.”

One of the greatest challenges of slicing various proteins is understanding that establishing a different process for each protein is critical to successful slicing, says Gerald Lessard, vice president and COO of West Liberty Foods LLC, West Liberty, Iowa.

“Temperature control, blade composition, edge configuration, speed and honing angle are all significant aspects of slicing various proteins,” he says. “Downstream of the slicer, conveyance of the portion needs to accommodate the various portion configurations and the different characteristics of each protein.”

Whole-muscle items or items with minimally reduced muscle size are more challenging to slice than fully processed items, Lessard says.

“The key to overcoming these challenges is the ability to have flexibility in the operation and adjust the process to produce the desired results,” he says.

In addition, customers are concerned with shelf life, and the key is to start with clean sanitation throughout a facility, Dickman says. Charlie’s Pride recently invested in a new facility with a dedicated clean room for slicing. The room includes positive airflow and special refrigeration equipment that doesn’t flow directly onto the product, but circulates in a way that particles are not transferred to the product. The room’s temperature is kept extremely cold to facilitate proper slicing and only dedicated personnel are allowed in the room. The room is cleaned at each species change, Dickman says. In addition, before a bag of raw materials is opened up to be sliced, the protein passes through a pasteurizer machine to sanitize the product.

Simpler slicing

New developments are helping to make slicing easier for processors. For example, work has been done to attempt to duplicate the scissor action, Bracrella says.

“This action is meant to give a cleaner cut and also has shown success doing bone-in to reduce splintering and bone dust,” he says. “This technology also increases the yield of the finished product. Vision technology is also being used for accurate weights and thicknesses.”

In addition, new equipment that can count the number of pieces per pound or adjust the diameter for the number of pieces per pound is aiding slicing, Dickman says. Machines that allow for post-pasteurization also are assisting with product safety and extending shelf life, he adds.

Finally, new developments in slicing include wider slicing beds, variable speed grippers, endless feed slicers, blade geometry, portion placement and enhanced sanitary conditions, Lessard says. Some solutions that he hopes are working their way down the technology pipeline are the ability to recondition blades, advanced metallurgy in the manufacturing of blades and further refinements in machine sanitation.

Photos courtesy of Charlie’s Pride Meats