Poultry Processors Uncover New Ways to Reduce Costs

January 1, 2009
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Market pressures, sustainability and food-borne illness issuses are driving the push for increased efficiency.



Pumps at Tyson’s new wastewater pre-treatment system in Monett, MO keep the water flowing. The new facility houses two dissolved air flotation systems and an equalization basin and effectively double-treats the wastewater before returning it to the city’s system. Source: Tyson Foods


While automation has helped decrease employee accident rates and increase production throughput, poultry processors have been hit by the recent economic slump, causing them to look for ways beyond automation to cut losses. Some have closed plants, while others tried to decrease energy usage, reuse water and find ways to diminish the likelihood of a food-borne illness outbreak.

According to a recent First Research Poultry Processing quarterly report, the industry consists of approximately 500 companies with combined annual revenue of $40 billion. Fifty of the largest companies (such as Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride and Perdue Farms) hold more than 90% of the market. Small companies, however, can compete by serving limited geographical areas and producing specialized products. Current consumption demands production of about 9 billion, five-pound broilers annually in the US. Feed conversion rates for poultry are among the highest in livestock at close to 2.00; it takes about 10 pounds of feed to produce a five-pound chicken.

According to the report, chickens are a commodity product, and price competition is fierce. Although some retail brand names are important to consumers, wholesale buyers typically do business with a number of different processors, and often use the USDA National Weekly Pricing Report to negotiate prices. Frozen broilers are traded on commodity futures markets.

Lyco’s double-drum screen (before installation at Michigan Turkey Producers) screens particles as small as 0.02 inches from the plant’s wastewater stream, which ranges from 700,000 to 800,000 gallons per day. Source: Lyco.

Protecting brand and image

As with many food and beverage products, brand name-often the corporate name-is crucial to economic survival, and that means keeping production quality high, lowering prices and minimizing the potential of food-borne illnesses. Consumers’ brand loyalty can change overnight with the report of a food-borne illness outbreak caused by Salmonella or E. coli. While an automation system’s track and trace capability may limit the size of a recall, the resulting bad press doesn’t help a processor reclaim consumer trust.

Bad press magnified by consumer interest groups can further the damage. In a 2006 study on Salmonella in broiler chickens, Food and Water Watch named specific processors and their contamination failure rates. While this information can be obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, it is not the kind of news processors want on the evening news. Food and Water Watch currently reports that some agribusiness companies want to export chicken products from China to the US and is urging consumers to write their congressmen to prohibit the expenditure of any funds that would allow the import of substandard Chinese chicken products.

Wal-Mart has shown that sustainability can make a difference to consumers, and it has also been able to pressure its suppliers to do likewise. But sustainability is not only good PR; adopting sustainability measures can save money as well.

Most of the poultry industry is highly automated, but in many ways, the basic equipment hasn’t changed much in 30 years. This equipment, however, has been helped along by modern sensors and controls technology that keeps critical temperatures constant, maintains conveyor speeds and eliminates bottlenecks, inspects for metal and bones, increases throughput and provides track and trace. (See story on page 117.)

Advances in stunning, killing and evisceration equipment have helped relieve employees of dangerous operations, and robotics can do the heavy lifting of packages, preventing on-the-job back injuries.

Workplace safety

Today, promoting safety through adequate training improves employees’ safety records, which not only improves the corporate public image, but also can lower the cost of health insurance. According to First Research, the annual rate of illness and injury in the poultry industry is 40 percent higher than for all US workers. Even so, according to the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of injury and illness in 2006 was 6.6 per 100 full-time workers, down from 7.4 in 2005 and 14.2 in 2000.

When safety programs are in place and the results are good, processors can rightly boast of their records. At Perdue’s Monterey, TN facility, its 1,800 employees racked up more than 19 million man-hours without a lost-time incident between 2003 and 2007. The safety record earned a Commissioner’s Award of Excellence for Workplace Safety from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. According to Jeff Beckman, Perdue director of operations, “Our safety programs are designed to create a culture of safety that involves every associate. The most important part of creating a safe workplace is the ongoing dedication of our associates who come to work everyday striving to maintain a safe work environment.”

Let automation do the work

Offloading drudgery tasks from people and installing robots is one way to reduce the number of repetitive motion injuries from packaging operations and back injuries incurred from stacking pallets. Jeff Ray, marketing manager of Marel Food Systems, suggests two good robotics applications for packaging. One application is a batching unit, the RoboBatcher, which is capable of placing products such as chicken breasts in trays at the rate of up to 200 items per minute in a dual-lane system. The device combines several technologies to provide accurate fixed-weight batching with minimal giveaway and attractive presentation in trays.

The other robotic application Ray describes is an intelligent portioning/loading (IPL) robot, which was developed with assistance from ABB Robotics. This pick-and-place system uses a vision system to identify incorrectly sized or misshapen portions and has the ability to regulate product quality by assessing fat content levels through the portion’s size and shape. The IPL system can also be integrated to work with slicers and saws. Besides the obvious advantages that robots can work much faster and more accurately without getting tired, Ray cites other reasons to consider robotics: the cost of labor, the scarcity of available labor and hygiene. Robots don’t sneeze and they don’t carry pathogens.

Steven R. Smith, general manager North America, JBT FoodTech, sees a continued focus on processes that generate higher yields and at the same time take repetitive tasks away from workers. For example, a water-jet cutter, when combined with a slitter and 3D optics, can slice chicken breasts in three dimensions, recognize fat and remove it and maintain thickness and weight all in real time, faster and more accurately than humans.

Marel’s intelligent portioning/loading robot uses a vision system to identify incorrectly sized or misshapen chicken breasts. It eliminates human touch on a line, reducing the spread of pathogens. Source: Marel Food Systems.

Waste not

Sustainability comes in many shapes and sizes. While it’s a good idea to clean water-either for reuse or before sending it back to the public utility-there are some other benefits; for example, what is filtered out of the water can be put to use. Tyson Foods’ Monett, MO plant completed the construction of a new wastewater pre-treatment system. The $4.8 million system replaces the previous facility that had been in operation for 38 years. The new system enables Tyson to do extensive pre-treatment of plant wastewater before it is sent to the city for final treatment.

“This project is an example of our commitment to be good environmental stewards,” said David Young, plant manager. Tyson expects lower daily operating costs, and the facility can provide additional pre-treatment if it’s needed in the future. The new system consists of two dissolved air flotation systems, an equalization basin and other equipment that enables Tyson to double-treat wastewater from the plant.

One way to decrease the work of dissolved air flotation systems is to use a dual screening system that removes organic and inorganic particulates from a wastewater stream. Michigan Turkey is a live turkey processor that handles roughly 20,000 birds per day. Its birds on average weigh 40 pounds live and 34 pounds dressed. “We purposely set up our wastewater system to handle anything that comes down it, any volume and concentration of particulate matter,” says Mike DeVries, plant engineer. This adds up to more load than most processors have. “In our picking operation, we drop right to water with our feathers, and we actually move our feathers via water,” he adds. “The cost for us on the rendering side, or downstream side of processing, was the moisture content, so with the Lyco double drum screen we found that we generate an extremely dry feather and consequently avoided any surcharging for moisture. Our rendering [facility] actually had to add moisture to process our feathers,” says DeVries.

Pilgrim’s Pride installed an ecomagination-certified GE wastewater treatment system at its El Dorado, AR plant. The system, which uses entrapped air flotation (EAF) technology, reduces the amount of waste solids produced by 425,000 lbs. per week. This eliminates the need to transport the waste solids off site and reduces the associated greenhouse gas emissions from trucking by more than 800,000 lbs. per year.

The reductions are possible because the EAF system eliminates the use of 286,000 gallons per year of ferric sulfate, a chemical that is used to help remove contaminants from wastewater, but it can also produce large quantities of waste solids. The system also allows Pilgrim’s Pride to recycle about 30,000 gallons of water per day to wash down outdoor areas and for non-contact cooling.

But recycling water wasn’t the only advantage. According to Pilgrim’s Pride Corporate Environmental Manager Vernon Rowe, “What once were waste solids have now been turned into a valuable byproduct that is being processed at our Farmerville, LA protein conversion plant and converted to a valuable protein source for poultry and animal feed. We are very pleased with the results we have achieved.”

Fighting pathogens

No one wants to be on the nightly news with reports of a pathogen outbreak. Relentless coverage of Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods’ Listeria outbreak was on Canadian television last August and September. The problem was eventually traced to a very difficult-to-clean area in a slicing machine.

Food processing equipment can be designed to be more cleanable, perhaps even cleaned-in-place. One possible solution to the slicing machine dilemma might be to eliminate any gearing or belt drives, which automatically add and hide surfaces needing to be cleaned. Instead, why not replace it with a sealed stainless steel motor directly connected to a blade and control the motor with an intelligent drive system? Marel suggested this as a viable solution, but it can be taken further. Marel has a slicer with a built-in vision system, which looks at the end cut and is able to adapt the slice thickness based on the lean-to-fat ratio and the surface area to be exposed on the next cut. Ray says this particular slicer was designed to be cleaned.

Another issue is problem joints in freezers. According to Smith, over the years freezers have been constructed with seams that often used a caulking material. While a little more costly up front, freezers constructed with completely welded seams provide no surface for pathogens to escape from cleaning solutions. Another problem, Smith says, was the use of hollow stock for supporting frame members. This material provided more places for bacteria to multiply and hide from cleaning solutions. Today, the use of solid members-whether cylindrical or square-provide for more effective cleaning of pathogens.

Proper chemical usage

One of the key areas in poultry processing where biocides are applied is the carcass wash tank. Chlorine has been used for years, but is not necessarily the safest biocide from a worker safety standpoint. In 2003, USDA approved the use of Bromitize from Solution BioSciences, Inc. According to USDA’s FSIS, Bromitize is a bromine-based biocide and is an effective poultry carcass antimicrobial when used in poultry chillers and/or inside-outside bird washers (IOBW) at a level up to 100 ppm available bromine in the supply water. At the same time, FSIS also approved the use of BOC Food Safety’s ozone wash system using aqueous ozone on RTE meat and poultry products for the control of Listeria.

In 2001, FDA approved ozone in both gaseous and liquid phases as an antimicrobial to be applied directly to food. In the same year, FDA also approved the use of a mixture of peroxyacetic acid, octanoic acid, acetic acid, hydrogen peroxide, peroxyoctanoic acid, and 1-hydroxyethylidene-1,1- diphosphonic acid as antimicrobial on poultry carcasses, poultry parts and organs. In 2000, Alcide Corp. petitioned FDA to allow the use of chlorine dioxide as a biocide in carcass washes.

Which is more effective: chlorine or chlorine dioxide? A 2008 research project submitted to the Poultry Science Association and abstracted on the USDA Web site outlined the results of a comparison of chlorine and chlorine dioxide. The study showed that immersion chilling with chlorine and chlorine dioxide removed bacteria from carcass surfaces. Data also showed that chlorinated chiller water had reduced bacterial levels, but there was a greater carcass cross-contamination with Campylobacter and Salmonella as compared to chlorine dioxide.

Whether you choose chlorine or chlorine dioxide may be due to reasons beyond just efficacy. According to Michael Coughlin, JohnsonDiversey senior group leader, food and beverage, there is no perfect antimicrobial. “We use chlorine in some chillers, but the molecule we promote is chlorine dioxide,” he says. If chlorine dioxide is applied properly, Coughlin adds, a processor will use much less in the chiller, and it’s more economical to use than chlorine, and there are fewer odors with chlorine dioxide. While the most commonly used antimicrobial used is chlorine, its reactivity with organics in the chiller (besides pathogens) creates undesirable disinfection byproducts. He adds that to adequately kill the bacteria in the chiller water that is shed from the carcass takes strong and odorous levels of chlorine.

Coughlin says a recent trend originating in Europe and Canada makes use of air chilling carcasses instead of water cooling. Proponents of air chilling say water chilling, besides using a lot of water, makes a perfect cross-contamination vehicle. Air chilling, says Coughlin, has its own problems. It takes up a much larger footprint and is not as efficient as a cooling medium as water.  He says several peer-reviewed articles published by the University of Georgia Agricultural Research Stations show there is more cross-contamination in an air chiller than a water chiller because released bacteria in a water chiller are killed by the sanitizer in the water, whereas there is no antimicrobial in the air chiller. Coughlin contends that misting in air can actually transmit bacteria.

Unfortunately, several studies compare air chilling vs. water chilling without the use of any antimicrobials, so in one sense the studies don’t mimic real-world application. One study entitled, “Effect of Immersion or Dry Air Chilling on Bacteria Recovery from Broiler Carcasses,” submitted to the Journal of Food Protection and appearing on the USDA Web site finds that “These results demonstrate that air and immersion chilled carcasses, without any chemical intervention, are microbiologically comparable, and a 90% reduction in counts of E. coli, coliforms, and Campylobacter can be obtained after chilling.”

A November 2005 Australian study, “Scientific Assessment of The Public Health and Safety of Poultry Meat in Australia,” by Food Standards Australia New Zealand found a minimal effect on Campylobacter by air and water chilling and a minimal effect on Salmonella by air chilling. Although the report favors air chilling, there are so many variables in testing that the results are less than conclusive. One worthwhile take-away: “The level and prevalence of both Salmonella and Campylobacter on carcasses at the end of processing had a large influence on the estimated number of illness. Based on the model, a ten-fold reduction in the level of contamination of Salmonella and Campylobacter at the end of processing resulted in a 74% and 93% reduction in the number of predicted cases of illness respectively.”

Bromine, ozone join the fray

According to Loren Williams, president and CEO of Solution BioSciences, bromine’s molecular weight is 2.5 times heavier than chlorine, making it not as reactive and volatile in poultry processing environments. It can be generated from a powder, and there is no odor, no gassing off and no harmful effects to skin and eyes. Because it’s not as reactive in the chill tank, it doesn’t create disinfection byproducts, yet it is still an effective biocide. It can be used as a direct carcass wash or in any of the tanks or for both in-line and off-line reprocessing. Bromine dissipates in an hour and a half.

Ozone has been stirring up some interest since FDA sanctioned its use as a biocide to kill pathogens on food. But it has been used for water purification for many decades, and may displace chlorine for some applications. According to Phillip Mullinax, president of AgriO3, “We’re at a [poultry] processing plant right now running a prototype to see if we can recycle all the water that comes out of the plant and turn it around for reuse without chlorine.”

Mullinax says that ozone is 3,000 times stronger than chlorine as a biocide and can save water in the processing steps. His system makes ozone directly within water, so it doesn’t have to be injected into the water.

The initial ozone capital equipment outlay is where Williams thinks he can beat ozone. He visited a further processing plant in Arkansas, which was considering spending $1 million to put in an ozone system. The pay-as-you-go approach to using Bromine was attractive, and the plant began using Bromine and went from ten shifts to fifteen shifts using the bromine product.

When asked about the install costs of chlorine dioxide, Coughlin said an initial expenditure for equipment is necessary because chlorine dioxide must be made on site. The equipment typically comes in a little less than ozone. Where Coughlin faces the tough sell is with chlorine that’s basically “a $200 diaphragm pump sitting on top of a drum.” Coughlin contends that it will get a lot tougher to meet USDA Salmonella standards with using just chlorine. Right now, processors cannot have a Salmonella incident occurrence greater than 20% of tested products; over the next year or so, USDA will decrease the number to 5%.

Besides tough economic times, processors are concerned with maximizing product output while keeping quality high and product free of pathogens. This becomes even more of a challenge today as consumers are unforgiving of mistakes. New automation technology and chemistry to kill pathogens can help relieve some of the pressure. But a skilled, safe labor force goes a long way to promoting brand image.

For more information:
Jeff Ray, Marel Food Systems, 913-888-9110, jeff.ray@marel.com
Steven Smith, JBT FoodTech, 678-797-4258, steve.smith@jbtc.com
Mike Coughlin, JohnsonDiversey, 513-956-2586, michael.coughlin@johnsondiversey.com
Loren Williams, Solution BioSciences, 877-251-3688, lwilliams@sbsciences.com
Phillip Mullinax, AgriO3, 706-864-3434, pmullinax@agrio3.com

Antibiotics debate continues

Effective September 12, 2005, FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) withdrew its approval status for the use of a class of antimicrobials known as fluoroquinolones (more specifically, enrofloxacin). Ciprofloxacin (Cipro) is the comparable human drug in this class. Baytril (from Bayer Corporation), the trade name for enrofloxacin, is indicated for the control of mortality in chickens and turkeys associated E. coli and Pasterella multocida (turkeys only). The drug was banned in poultry because of the risk that it promotes drug-resistant bacteria that can be harmful to humans.

In a letter dated July 19, 2004, Dr. Scott M. Russell, Associate Professor  at University of Georgia’s Department of Poultry Science, protested the withdrawal of enrofloxacin because its use protected chickens from both Campylobacter and Salmonella, both of which can result from airsacculitis (inflammation of the mucous membrane of the air sacs of birds), which causes a weakening of the intestines.

Russell said that poultry suppliers discontinued the use of antibiotics, not because it had anything to do with food safety, but to maintain good relations with major customers such as McDonalds. He said McDonalds was feeling pressure from special interest groups “who have little or no understanding of the data that is constantly being produced by the scientific community.” Russell blamed FDA for not responding objectively. He cited an example where a producer discontinued medicated feed, and six plants (one closed by inspectors) that were having difficulty with severe fecal contamination caused by weak intestines.

In an interview for this article, Russell says now most producers only give chickens antibiotics when they need it. In the past, he says, there was a trend to give chickens antibiotics continuously because they were “growth promoters.” In addition, feeding chickens antibiotics on a continuous basis tended to suppress pathogen levels.

Today, Russell says, there is quite a bit of literature that supports both sides of the fence. One theory says that if animals are given antibiotics as a prophylactic, it will have a negative effect and generate antibiotic-resistant bacteria. On the other hand, research has found that in flocks where chickens were never exposed to antibiotics, it’s possible to find concentrations of antibiotic resistance initiators, even in the litter. Russell says most likely in the latter case, it’s the human use of antibiotics that is causing this finding. He concludes by saying there’s lots of evidence in Europe that shows when there is a withdrawal of the use of antibiotics, there is a concomitant increase in human food-borne illness.

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