A QUICK visit to Brisbane’s Food Technology Queensland trade show yesterday confirmed that if anything, the pace of change in technology as it applies to red meat processing is speeding up, rather than showing any signs of easing up.
The impression we got from exhibitors spoken to yesterday is that the past two years of high profitability among meat processors has triggered a wave of expenditure on new or upgraded processing equipment and technology – everything from boilers and refrigeration systems to robotics, scanning and packaging technologies. All are designed to deliver greater efficiency and/or product performance.
Big changes are being seen in the packaging technology field, especially in improving shelf-life, lifting traceability and handling difficult-to-manage items like bone-in red meat items with sharp points. More on that in an article later this week, after attending a brief Expo seminar this afternoon.
Advances in plate freezer technology will be the subject of another upcoming story from the Food Technology Queensland exhibition. Beef Central learned that there has been a major increase in the use of plate freezing technology among red meat processing over the past three years, and Australia is now the dominant world leader in the use of this advanced technology. Much of that is related to our heavy export market dependence.
Today we focus on another piece of high-tech equipment on show yesterday.
Food Processing Equipment (FPE) featured the latest generation Eagle FA Dual Energy X-ray (DEXA) scanning technology. Manufactured in the US, but based on technology developed in New Zealand by their equivalent of CSIRO. The equipment fills two important purposes:
- It provides extremely detailed screening for contaminants, including metal (processors still find buckshot and other metal fragments embedded in beef), plastic, bone, glass, stone and other foreign object fragments.
- The same piece of equipment has an important second role, delivering fat analysis at an extremely accurate level. It can also analyse for protein and moisture levels, at extremely high rates of throughput.
The use of latest DEXA X-ray over the old MQ27 fat measurement and metal detection technology used for contaminant scanning is more expensive, but it offers a host of advantages not only in accuracy, but speed and versatility.
“This technology allows every single carton produced out of a plant to be analysed – 100 percent of production, if required,” FPE’s business development manager Stuart Hincksman said.
Only the very largest Australian beef plants, like JBS Dinmore, needed to install a second machine in order to keep up with throughput. There are currently 40 of the units in place in large processing installations across the country, and the number continues to grow.
“Ten years ago, on the JBS’s and Teys’s could justify the cost. Now, plants doing as few as 200 a day are making installations, because of the value-proposition they represent – greater efficiency, reduced fat claims from customers, and better managing lean levels in trim,” Mr Hincksman said.
“And secondly, there has been considerable growth in customer demand for X-ray inspected product. They know they can buy with a greater level of confidence.”
Another advantage is that the scans produced by the equipment show exactly where, in the carton, a detected foreign object is, presented like a doctor’s X-ray image. The old metal scanners simply sounded an alarm when a carton was detected with a metal contaminant.
And inherently, the older technology did not perform well in scanning red meat, because of one factor: the inherent iron content.
“The sensitivity in an older metal detecting units was fragments of stainless steel down to about 9mm in size. But the DEXA machine will detect, at high rates of throughput, down to 2mm,” Mr Hincksman said.
Managing CL before it gets into the carton
He said the next frontier for such technology was in controlling the CL (Chemical Lean, or the ratio of lean meat versus fat in a meat sample) before it reached the carton.
“Up to now, most scanning has occurred only after the trim or other meat has been placed in the final carton, which is really delivering the news too late. But CL can be monitored using the DEXA equipment in a continuous bulk stream, before it reaches to the carton, to very precise CL levels now being demanded by international customers.”
The only ‘bulk’ machine currently in use in Australia is installed at Thomas Foods International’s Murray Bridge facility in SA, analysing fat content of unpacked meat ‘on the belt.’
“It allows the user to batch an 80CL load, and then pack it that way. At the moment, an operator might visually assess a carton as around 80CL, but then find out after scanning it is an 83, or a 77, meaning it has to be diverted elsewhere.”
“This way, the customer is happy, because they are getting a far more accurate and consistent CL level in their product, to very narrow tolerances. And there are labour savings in packing once, without the need to re-work.”
“Also, it allows the operator to target what they want to pack more accurately, rather than just grading it in the carton as it comes down the line. It’s about getting more efficiency out of a plant’s lean meat output,” Mr Hincksman said.
In the domestic retail market, Coles now makes quite specific claims around the CL fat content of its various mince offers – regular, lean and heart-smart – based on DEXA scanning results. Woolworths is yet to follow suit, but is widely expected to do something similar, as everyday consumers become increasingly diet-conscious.
“We think the future is in doing the scan, for both contaminants and fat content, before the product ends up in the carton,” Mr Hincksman said.
FPE has already aligned with a company that allows it to offer a full system approach – size-reducing the trim, grading it in bulk on the belt, automated batching according to CL.
- The Food Technology Queensland exhibition is on at the Brisbane Convention Centre, South Brisbane, until late Tuesday afternoon.