It’s no secret that turkey processing and production has been challenged over the last couple of years due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The last two years have been all about the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Allison Attaway, marketing manager of poultry for Marel, with US offices in Lenexa, Kan. “People have been eating out less and at home more. Family gatherings at major events like Thanksgiving have been necessarily smaller. Food price inflation, the worst in 30 years, has also played its role in changing eating patterns.”
Labor challenges due to the pandemic have contributed to decreased production and declining inventories of frozen and fresh turkeys while demand for whole birds and cut up meat and trims has remained steady. This has translated into rising prices for whole turkeys and turkey meat.
“While labor and supply remain constrained, there will always be a tremendous focus on yield to maximize every bit of product that goes through processing,” said Stephen Chung, vice president of product management for Cantrell-Gainco Group Inc., Gainesville, Ga. “Our company’s YieldPlus debone and trim management systems provide active real-time reporting for production performance and operator accountability.”
The YieldPlus is a modular multi-workstation system that controls the distribution of product to trim operators while tracking individual performance leading to yield increases as high as 5% along with increased operator productivity.
Eric Nolten, vice president of sales for Meyn America, Ball Ground, Ga., noted the quest for automation is always there, especially with a tight labor pool.
“Automation in evisceration is what we specialize in, where our fully automatic eviscerator is mainly our driver for the unique value proposition in combination with our rehanger,” he said. “Even though the turkey industry is specialized, we have maintained our technical capability on the evisceration side, making sure we can deliver the best solution in the industry.”
Butterball, the Garner, NC-based turkey producer, believes automation and innovations to improve efficiency will be the name of the game in 2022 and beyond as manufacturing companies are learning how to do more with less.
“There is a significant responsibility that comes with being a big piece of the turkey supply in America, and Butterball works hard to make sure we can maintain the integrity of that supply, whether through process improvements, innovations, or being a top employer in our local communities, among others,” a spokesperson for the company said.
The industry is facing numerous challenges, chief among them being supply issues. There’s been an incredible focus around the security and reliability of supply, which has been underscored by the challenges over the past two years.
The disruptions to the supply chain and labor challenges that companies across many industries have experienced in the past two years have accelerated the need for operations to run more efficiently, while also being more agile and less susceptible to factors that would have triggered downtime in the past.
“We have maximized our capacity on researching supply chain to serve our customers the best we can,” Nolten said. “We have seen impact mostly on the electrical component side. Our in-house manufacturing has been able to alleviate some of the pressures since we have manufacturing locations in both Europe and the US.”
As a result of these challenges, turkey products have seen one of the steepest price increases.
“One of the factors driving recent price increases has been a shortfall in supply,” Attaway said. “This has been largely due to a lack of processing plant labor, also in part a consequence of COVID-19 infections in processing plants where risky shoulder to shoulder work is the norm.”
Marel systems largely automate the primary and secondary processes.
“Automation of the most physically demanding jobs means that operatives can be moved to lighter work resulting in lower staff turnover,” Attaway said. “The whole evisceration process can now be automatic, not just for hens but even the largest tom turkeys. Automation makes for a more consistent, more efficient venting and evisceration process.”
Since the United States accounts for approximately half of global turkey production, the market has been at the forefront of Marel development priorities. Examples are its new cropping machine for tom turkeys and the inside/outside washer at the end of the evisceration line. This flushes more water through the carcass, which can then be recirculated.
“Automatic evisceration not only saves people but also water, an important consideration in our warming world,” Attaway said. “Giblet harvesting, however, remains manual, although here too Marel has something interesting to offer, its adjustable three-point suspension system, whereby edible giblets are presented at the correct angle for inspection and harvesting and contaminating intestines kept away from the carcass.”
A Marel Innova software package can also oversee both primary and secondary processes. This provides insight into each part of the process, safeguarding processing efficiency, yield and product quality.
To support the strong demand for cut-up/sliced breast meat, Cantrell-Gainco offers Borncut portion cutters that provide a high-volume solution for precise, fixed-weight portions while maximizing yield and minimizing product give away, Chung said.
“Cantrell-Gainco also offers custom belt grading solutions that can be used across multiple applications – from sizing and binning carcasses to sorting and packaging breast meat by weight,” he said.
When it comes to demand for whole bird versus cut-up/sliced breast meat, Meyn hasn’t seen a value proposition take root on the turkey side.
“If we look at broilers, we see the continuous attempt to maximize value of broiler parts,” Nolten said. “Deboning of dark meat has been a major focus area, not only for the market, but also for Meyn, and therefore we are planning to release our inline thigh deboning system in Q3. This system maximizes adding value to dark meat while minimizing labor requirements.”
With a controlled atmosphere stunning system, live turkeys are no longer hung fully conscious and struggling to the killing line. This development benefits not just the birds but also the operatives hanging them.
“Marel offers a multi-stage system, where birds are conveyed smoothly into atmospheres progressively richer in CO2,” Attaway said. “Marel also adds oxygen to the mix and humidifies it to make the stunning process less aversive.”