Processing perfect poultry

Poultry is processed in one of the harshest environments in the food industry, and as global appetites for these popular meats increase, so do the food safety expectations of regulators, retailers and consumers. Although the sector consists of many different birds – such as turkey, geese and ducks, for example – it is predominantly chicken that is processed on a large scale.

In 2016, according to United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures, global production of broiler chicken meat (birds raised specifically for meat production) was expected to hit a record 89.7 million tons – a rise of 1.1 per cent on 2015 – therefore processors must meet demanding production schedules, at the same time ensuring the safety of product entering the retail supply chain.

Challenges for poultry processors

For processors, the primary challenge with poultry is the detection of bones – mainly the rib, fan and wish bones, as the majority of product processed is breast meat (or fillet). These three bone types have different detection levels. The wish bone is the easiest to detect as it is denser, then the rib bones, followed by the fan bones. The fan bones are very thin, almost like cartilage, in young birds.

Should a chicken breast reach a consumer with bone present, the consequences can be very damaging. A negative experience can be widely reported in a short time through social media channels, which can damage a brand’s reputation. Worse still, if a product has to be recalled from circulation consumers may avoid that brand throughout the recall period, with some potentially not returning after the all clear has been given. Finally, it can be hazardous to consumer health to consume a product with unexpected bones present. Aside from the risk of choking, chicken bones tend to splinter and can cause injury if bitten into or swallowed.

These challenges are compounded by the fact that the majority of birds are slaughtered before they reach maturity, meaning the bones have not had a chance to calcify properly. Calcification hardens bones, which creates a greater disturbance in an x-ray image and makes them easier to detect, but processors are reluctant to increase the lifecycle of the birds processed in order to allow for greater calcification as it is often not viable from a cost or demand perspective.

X-ray inspection benefits

Many processors are still inspecting poultry manually, but realistically this should not be encouraged as a primary method of contaminant detection due to the margin for human error. Given the food safety regulations, such as HACCP for example, and the fact that many retailers demand that products be inspected by an x-ray system in order to do business with them, it is preferable to make bone detection an automated, inline process.

That is not to say that the human element should be removed altogether. Secondary inspection can dramatically reduce product waste and integrated trim stations enable rejected product to be sent to a rework station, where operatives can double check for contaminants, remove the object and then rescan the item via the x-ray system once more. The advantage of the x-ray system is that 100% of product is inspected as it passes down the line – reducing the risk of contaminants continuing further downstream, where they also have the potential to damage machinery.

In addition to increasing efficiency in terms of waste, and therefore return on investment (ROI), x-ray inspection systems designed specifically for poultry applications are often capable of detecting calcified bone down to 2mm thickness at a speed of 120FPM (36MPM) – which ensures consistent product quality at high production speeds, at the same time minimising manual handling. Furthermore, due to the sensitivity levels that must be set in order to detect bones of this size, other contaminants such as metal fragments, glass shards and some rubber and plastic compounds are also far easier to detect.

Presentation is a key consideration

How processors deal with product is important to consider when installing x-ray inspection equipment, as the systems will need to be calibrated and positioned accordingly in order to realise their full potential.

There are many advantages of employing a pipeline inspection machine at the beginning of the process to inspect poultry in the form of breasts, ground meat or trim. Contaminated product can be removed before further value is added downstream, which can lead to considerable savings in terms of waste; downstream equipment can be protected from damage caused by physical contaminants; and, most importantly, consumers are protected from potential harm.

Bulk (or loose) flow is the most common presentation for poultry and is where the ability to detect multiple contaminants comes into its own. Many manual and automated processes leave products open to contamination – such as the tips breaking off of knives, or metal parts shearing from machines – and x-ray systems are capable of providing a catch all solution in this situation. The presentation of bulk flow product also aids better detection capabilities, as it is often passed through the system unpackaged and at a shallow depth.

Finally, for packaged products, such as chicken breasts in trays, x-ray adds value in terms of the number of quality checks that can be performed simultaneously. In addition to the detection of physical contaminants, components can be counted, total and zoned mass can be calculated in order to reduce product giveaway and prevent underweight packages from getting to the customer. This end of line inspection process gives brands and retailers ultimate peace of mind.

Expert advice

When looking to introduce inline product inspection, such as an x-ray system, it is important to work with an expert supplier from the outset. Different processing procedures and applications require specific equipment and settings, and by taking all production needs into consideration at the beginning, processors can start to reap the benefits of the systems from day one.

Look closely at what is being processed, where the critical control points on the line are situated, and choose to work with a supplier that truly understands how to make a system work hard for its money and for you.

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