But as highly developed as America's chicken and turkey plants have become, the best is yet to come. Aided by expansion of USDA's HACCP-based Inspection Model Project (HIMP), plant operators and their equipment partners are devising systems that significantly up the automation ante.
Critical control points replace standard operating procedures and good manufacturing practices under HIMP. Instead of USDA inspectors performing carcass-by-carcass inspections, process control points serve as food safety checks, with monitoring procedures or verification measures validating performance. No beef processors and only three hog facilities participate in HIMP, but the pilot program has grown to include 20 poultry processors since its inception in October 1999. Until regulations are promulgated, participation by chicken processors essentially has maxed out.
The goal is to improve the safety of finished goods, and data comparisons with control groups using traditional plant inspections consistently suggest that HIMP plants have lower proportions of carcasses with bruises, animal diseases, dressing defects and other safety-related imperfections. The incidence of Septicemia and toxemia is virtually nonexistent in HIMP-plant verifications, USDA data indicate.
New processes demand new equipment, or at least modified versions. Stork Gamco Inc. has rolled out its Nutech H-style evisceration system to take advantage of the faster line speeds possible under HIMP. Because there no longer is a need to present viscera and carcass together to an inspector, the H-style system deploys a single-pack line that links the carcass and viscera electronically, not physically. "Synchronization equipment, motor controls and other hardware are eliminated, and that drops the cost significantly," according to Stork's Frank Nicoletti. He estimates the economy compared to the double-pack line at 35 to 40 percent, "and that may be conservative."
Nu-Tech was designed with HIMP in mind, Nicoletti says, and Claxton Poultry's plant in Claxton, Ga., installed the first line capable of conversion to the H style more than a year before the HIMP pilot program began. Another line is operating at Goldkist's Guntersville, Ala., facility. If either the viscera or carcass is flagged as unacceptable, the system automatically kicks off both components.
Line reliability is better, maintenance and cleaning costs are lower, space requirements are less and, perhaps best of all, line speeds are significantly higher. "It's a 140-birds-a-minute line," Nicoletti says, "and we are running at speeds up to 179, the maximum allowed under HIMP. It's a lot easier and a lot more efficient than lines requiring manual inspection."
Carcass-wash optionsBetter hygienic interventions for carcasses are critical in a HACCP-based approach. Several arrows have been added to processors' quivers to accomplish that. Last summer's FDA approval of ozonated water in direct contact with poultry and other foods was a milestone. BOC had designed its Macron Loop several years ago with direct contact in mind, but the system was limited to wastewater treatment until now.
"Chlorine is very dangerous, and there isn't a scientist in the government that doesn't know that," points out Louis D. Caracciolo, the inventor of the Macron Loop who now heads BOC's SafeQuest initiative to develop food-safety technology. "Ozone can't replace chlorine, but we're developing systems that minimize the risk of using chlorine."
While the Macron Loop combines microfiltration and ozonation to treat chiller water for reuse, BOC also is working with firms such as PCI-Wedeco and RGF Environmental Group to piggyback direct-contact systems to the Loop's ozone-generation capacity.
The regulatory green light also has been given to several chemical washdown options. "USDA has declared war on pathogens," notes Richard Higby, senior market manager for meat and poultry at Ecolab Inc. "The wealth of treatments you're seeing now reflects the normal development time lag since that war was declared."
In September, FDA cleared the way for use of Ecolab's Inspexx 100 for direct contact with poultry. The peroxyacid typically achieves 1 to 3 log reductions of pathogen loads, Higby reports. Ecolab has submitted a petition for a validation protocol to apply Inspexx 100 for on-line reprocessing of rejected carcasses in the evisceration room.
The Chad Co., Olathe, Kan., has developed the IPS-3000 rinse cabinet for use with Inspexx 100, though preexisting cabinets often can be retrofitted for use, Higby says. A dwell time of 1 to 15 seconds in the cabinet with a peracid concentration of 100 to 200 ppm can significantly reduce pathogen loads. Independent lab tests showed a 3.27 log reduction of E. coli 0157, for example, compared to a 0.1 log reduction with water alone.
More diluted concentrations of the active ingredient can be added to chillers. "The more times you swing the bat, the better off you are" in lowering pathogen counts, Higby points out. After use, peroxyacid breaks down to water, oxygen, octanoic acid and acetic acid.
Higby expects the product to be applied commercially later this year. Ecolab will price the solution at $2 to $3 per 1,000 lbs. of product treated, comparable to the cost of acidified sodium chlorite, marketed by Alcide Food Safety Inc. as Sanova, and trisodium phosphate, which also is used in dairy processing.
Stunning's evolutionStunning has emerged as one of poultry technology's more dynamic areas, though for reasons more political than scientific. Animal welfare activists in Europe have been particularly vocal in denouncing electrical stunning, pressuring their governments to ban it in favor of carbon dioxide stunning. Those critics ignore the improvements that continue to be made in electrical stunning, experts point out.
"Gas stunning represented an improvement over the high voltage/high amperage systems used in Europe, and it has been somewhat of an improvement for turkey processing in North America, although it has not been widely adopted as of yet," according to S.F. "Sarge" Bilgili, a poultry scientist at Alabama's Auburn University. "But in the U.S., we have always used low current electrical stunning systems, and it is improving. The design of the cabinets has improved, the dwell times have been extended, and we control the electrical parameters much better today than we did 15 years ago."
Dallas, Ga.-based Simmons Engineering Co. is a supplier of electrical stunning systems, with a dominant share of the U.S. market and a growing presence throughout Europe. Significant refinements to Simmons' pulsating, direct current stunner have been made in recent years, according to Wayne Austin, vice president of operations and engineering, resulting in more effective and humane stunning.
"Pulsating direct current tended to work on the nervous system, but we found a low-frequency stun works on the muscular system, and you get a longer-lasting stun," Austin explains. More than 40 volts of electricity passed through the previous generation of stunners; that's been stepped down to 13 to 15 volts, "yet the birds are much more quiet because we relax them first with the low-frequency current." A saline solution on the stun surface and applied to the bird's feather and skin aids electrical conductivity and helps minimize the likelihood of revival during bleeding.
"By stunning first with low-voltage DC, we can take the bird almost to cardiac arrest at 50 volts alternating current, and we don't get any carcass damage," he adds. The eyes of an avian are an extremely sensitive area, yet a properly stunned bird's eyes can be rubbed without creating a reflex action.
"Gas stunning may save labor and improve product quality for turkeys," Austin reflects. But he doesn't believe the technology is appropriate for chickens, citing an experience with one such system in which one in 10 chicks emerged with broken wings, a result of frenzied attempts to escape during gassing.
No matter how fast poultry lines are engineered to run, the greatest choke point in the process occurs down on the farm. Catching and hauling remains the most labor-intensive aspect of the process, and glitches there result in starving the production line. Perdue Farms announced its intention to completely automate the catching process a few years ago, and Charley Carpenter of the firm's broiler division is scheduled to detail Perdue's experience during this month's International Poultry Scientific Forum in Atlanta.
Greater temperature control is another challenge in poultry, and advances are occurring in that area, as well. In conjunction with a recent plant expansion, Cooper Farms installed Praxair's SilentSnow system to more precisely inject carbon dioxide to the needed product area during continuing rotary chilling. The change helped lower costs and improve quality of finished goods.
Poultry processing is filled with similar refinements and improvements. Once HIMP rolls out for general use, the pace of those improvements will only accelerate.