Among the highlights at the 2023 International Production & Processing Expo (IPPE) in Atlanta was a wide-ranging presentation about where the meat industry is headed, and what tools are available for processors to streamline their operations. Five experts forecast key areas to watch during the session, and here are some of their takeaways and advice for food manufacturing professionals.
Food safety and labor
Al Almanza, global head of food safety and quality assurance at protein giant JBS (and former deputy undersecretary for food safety under U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas Vilsack) focused on how a successful, proactive food safety culture goes much deeper than what happens on the plant floor.
“People are the ones that will make or break you,” said Almanza, “and everyone is responsible for food safety. I’m not going to use any names, but the cleaning companies that are utilized in the meat industry—I’m sure most of you know what happened [last year]. So, what’s that got to do with food safety? It has everything to do with food safety, because we should have known about their hiring practices, regardless of whether they’re a contractor. So, if you have a security guard, or hire an outside company, or whatever, make sure all those people are adhering to your policies within your establishment and your facility, because that can cause you as much risk as anything.”
Almanza added that an unwavering focus on being proactive instead of reactive when it comes to food safety can mitigate hazards before they happen, but that vigilance requires daily attention. “When we see issues coming, we need to know how to address them,” he said. “There are opportunities for us to improve on a daily basis, but they’re always easier to put off until the next day or until our margins are better, and that’s something we need to do a better job of [as an industry]."
Technology like AI and predictive analytics can help make it easier to be proactive when it comes to food safety, according to Almanza, but the data generated by those tools needs to be applied daily. “What are you doing with that data? Are you making decisions that will make you better, or are you just collecting data for the sake of collecting data?”
Almanza concluded that adding automation today in meat processing facilities “is so critical. This has been a competitive three-shift, six-days-a-week industry forever. And people’s attitudes today are not aligned with the six-day work week,” he explained. “So even if 90% of your workforce is present and ready to go, that last 10% can throw your weight off. The more we can do to make jobs easier through automation, we won’t have to keep pressing three shifts a day all week.”
Savannah Talmadge, director of business development at Sealed Air, detailed where sustainable meat packaging is heading, based on a 2021 survey conducted by Sealed Air. Talmadge’s team focuses on deploying sustainable food packaging solutions for renewable materials.
The survey queried 1,500 consumers that had purchased red meat in the past 30 days. The results revealed that 63% of shoppers threw their meat packaging into the trash instead of recycling it.
Those surveyed did say they were concerned about multiple sustainability features in meat packaging. At the top was recyclability (56%), followed by biodegradability (48%), using recycled materials (46%), and the amount of packaging waste (41%).
“By definition, [Federal Trade Commission] Green Guides say that packaging must be able to be collected, sorted, reprocessed and must be available to 60% of households to be recycled,” said Talmadge. “Recyclability means it’s actually collected and recycled back into packaging. Today only 9% of the world’s plastics is recycled. Demand is expected to grow by 5.5 times in the next five years, because most of the world’s largest consumer goods companies have made commitments to use recycled packaging. But the supply is lagging and there’s not enough recycled plastic to realistically meet those goals.”
Talmadge says a further challenge is that plastic packaging for food has strict hygiene and performance requirements for food protection and distribution. “The next few years are going to be critical to the commercialization of the advanced technology and business models necessary to make advanced recycling work at scale alongside mechanical recycling for those more rigid structures.”
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Talmadge notes that adherence to a sustainability waste hierarchy in the shape of an inverted pyramid “is really a great tool you can use to ensure that you’re enabling the most sustainable outcomes,” she said. At the top of this inverted pyramid is reducing packaging size and weight, followed by reusing packaging, then recycling, recovering, and at the bottom—the option that should be least used—is disposal.
“The expansion of refill/reuse models and recycled packaging will always win the day,” Talmadge said. “Really looking at this waste hierarchy using the four Rs provides guidance on where the future of sustainable packaging is going to be.”
Animal welfare, technology, and transparency
Karen Christensen, senior director of animal welfare at Tyson Foods discussed how technology is affecting animal welfare and transparency for her company today. “I’m really convinced that technology and innovation is going to move our efforts in animal welfare farther and faster than any progress we’ve seen over the last 5, 10, or even 15 years,” she said.
Three technological tools impacting the welfare of chickens at Tyson, according to Christensen, are utilizing sensor data, monitoring the intensity of vocalizations from the chickens, and watching how they react to lighting conditions.
“This gives us the opportunity to intervene and mitigate any potential problems,” she said. “Things that we see very early on in the flock are very good predictors for what we will see at the end of the flock. So specifically, we’re seeing early indicators of footpad, dermatitis, heartburn, lameness, salmonella, Campylobacter, and other diseases. And even though we’re not seeing that clinically in the house at the time, apparently patterns of movement can give us very early indication.”
Speaking specifically to monitoring lighting conditions, Christensen observed the chickens “would prefer something with bright light over the feed, and then a gradient of light, which allows them to go away from the light to rest and feel safe.”
Regarding the intensity of vocalizations, Christensen pointed to an example when a fan malfunctioned in the coop, and the volume of the birds increased. “This data can be communicated to the farm caretakers,” she said, “and then we can begin to understand the type of disruptions that may impact the welfare and performance of the animals.”
Another benefit to using these technological tools is it allows companies like Tyson to show different levels of transparency to business partners and consumers at a time when so much potential disinformation about the poultry industry can be easily disseminated online and via social media.
“We can use this transparency to demonstrate the continuous improvement that we have and can generate,” said Christensen. “I know we’ve all heard it for the last 25 years, but our industry must get comfortable telling our story. And if it’s a story of innovation, sustainability, and welfare then that’s the story we need to tell. We have to do that, because if we don’t, someone else will tell our story.”
Chad McCune, major account management at Birko, discussed water use in the beef industry—which can run in the hundreds of millions of gallons per minute—and how to recirculate and reuse the same water using modern wash cabinets that are focused on sustainability, which his company manufactures.
“That fresh water comes right into the plant, gets sprayed on a product, and goes straight down the drain,” said McCune. “Now we can recirculate in that cabinet. We’re re-pasteurizing the water as it comes back, and we can actually respray in the cabinet on the carcass.”
McCune showed a six-year beef case study where the water savings on carcass washing increased via recirculation year-over-year, all the way up to nearly 120 million gallons saved by the end. The data logged during that time also spotted areas for improvement to keep the conservation on track.
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“I think sanitation is where we need to focus next [with water use],” said McCune, who mentioned current CIP automation—along with data logging and flow meters—can result in savings of 50% water, 20% chemical, and 25% labor.
“We know someone can be spraying a hose for 45 minutes, but we don’t know what they're doing with it,” McCune said. “We know they might be spraying a belt, for example, but not much else. So, with flow meters and with data collection, we can find out exactly what the impact is on water use. That’s where the future of sanitation needs to go.”
Dave Miniat, chariman & CEO of Miniat Companies, detailed a new organization called Protein Pact, which is a collaboration among meat companies to share best practices to help elevate the industry as a whole.
“We started hearing about how bad our industry is when it came to animal welfare, food safety, employee safety, sustainability, and health and welfare. And to be honest with you, we as an industry have always been on our heels, we’ve been deflective, and we’ve been non-collaborative with our partners down the chain. We really saw this is as a time to change,” Miniat said.
Miniat was previously chairman of the board at the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) and is currently a member of its board of directors and executive committee. He said the idea for Protein Pact came from discussions among NAMI members. “Our larger partners like JBS and Tyson have tremendous amounts of resources, and they’ve done wonderful jobs trying to build sustainable programs within their companies. But there’s hundreds of smaller companies that don’t have those resources.”
Miniat added that NAMI is collecting best practices from all of its members—both large and small companies—and “we’re going to take this information and share it. It will show what areas we’re good at, and what areas we need to improve [as an industry]. We’ve set out bold, ambitious goals for 2030, that we as an industry plan to achieve.”