Fresher with pressure

by Joel Crews and Bryan Salvage
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By investing in a post-packaging high-pressure processing intervention to deliver fresher ground beef patties for its foodservice customers with enhanced food safety, Cargill Value Added Meats-Foodservice is excerpting pressure in more ways than one. Besides applying pathogen-halting water pressure to its new line of “Fressure,” fresh beef patties, Cargill is also pressing the rest of the industry to achieve a higher level of food-safety in its ground beef products.

After more than two years of developing and testing the technology, Cargill announced the implementation of high-pressure processing this past February. Initially supplying HPP-treated, fresh ground beef patties as a premium offering to the large-scale foodservice distributors and directly to operators featuring gourmet-style burgers on their menus, Fressure patties are currently processed exclusively at the company’s Columbus, Neb., ground-beef plant, one day per week. Operations at the plant include two production shifts and a sanitation shift. It currently employs approximately 359 employees. On the 40,000-sq.-ft. processing floor, four grinding systems feed six Formax patty-forming machines that are used to produce patties for the frozen line in addition to another forming machine used for fresh patties, including the Fressure line. One K-Pak machine processes ground-beef chubs using product from its Vemag pump; the plant’s other pumps are auger fed.

The beef facility, which sits on 78 acres and spans a total of 106,000 sq. ft., has been a fixture in the small town since 1995, when it was operated by Hudson Foods Co. It was acquired by IBP in 1998, and later operated as Carneco Foods as part of a partnership with IBP and Lopez Foods. Tyson Foods assumed IBP’s share of Carneco in 2001 when it acquired IBP. Then, in 2008, Cargill announced it would acquire Carneco to replace the ground beef plant in Booneville, Ark., that was destroyed by a fire in the spring of 2007. Ground-beef patty production is also done at Cargill’s facilities in Butler, Wis., and Brampton, Ontario.

Adding the Fressure line to the processing mix at the plant has been relatively seamless, according to Jeff Dykstra, general manager of the Columbus facility. From the raw material sources to the equipment used to mix, grind, form and package the patties, plant operations are, for the most part, the same on days when Fressure patties are being processed as they are when the facility is producing its traditional line of fresh and frozen burgers that are not treated using HPP technology. The Fressure product requires using a film that identifies the vacuum pouches with the Fressure logo, and in some cases customer-specific labels are added, but otherwise, the process is largely the same as it is for processing the plant’s other fresh patties.

After vacuum packaging, Fressure patties are packed in boxes that are purposely not sealed with tape, and loaded into refrigerated trailers backed up to the shipping doors behind the plant. From there, they are shipped about 580 miles east to a third-party HPP facility, American Pasteurization Company in Milwaukee.

Conveniently, most of the ground beef manufactured at the Columbus plant – including fresh and frozen product – is also shipped to the Milwaukee area, which serves as a distribution point for Cargill, therefore, diverting a limited amount of the fresh supply packed in vacuum pouches to APC isn’t a significant detour. “We ship to distributors all over the country,” Dykstra says. Raw supplies received at the plant are processed for fresh patty production and are typically shipped within a two-day window, which includes the test-and-hold period utilized for all ground products destined for Cargill’s foodservice customers. The Columbus facility benefits from its proximity to the company’s beef-slaughter plant about 15 miles east in Schuyler, as it receives product like chuck, Angus chuck and Certified Angus Beef raw materials from the neighboring operation. Other raw materials come from other Cargill plants and from other suppliers operating in the Midwest and Southwest.

While adding the HPP processing step might cost the company a sliver of shelf-life initially, Cargill and its customers realize a significant net gain as the shelf-life of most fresh patties goes from an industry average of 21 days without HPP treatment to 42 days after treatment.

HPP, a non-thermal food-safety intervention, has been used commercially for years to successfully denature pathogens in fresh juices, processed fruits and vegetables and ready-to-eat whole-muscle and deli meats. As for treating ground beef, Cargill is the first company to apply the technology, which uses water pressure on packaged food products placed inside water-tight vessels. According to research published by The Ohio State Univ.’s department of food science and technology, HPP has some limitations on the types of products that can be treated, but for those it can be used on, it extends refrigerated shelf-life and can be used to eliminate the risks associated with E. coli, Salmonella and Listeria. Besides APC, a number of third-party providers of HPP technology have recently come on line, including a facility at Ohio State, giving food processors the opportunity to outsource the process without investing in the HPP equipment, which can range in cost from $500,000 to more than $2.5 million per unit.

HPP for hire

APC was founded in June 2004. The ownership group includes Justin Segel, president, who was also president of Emmpak Foods when it was acquired by Cargill in 2001.

“In 2004, Cargill did some reorganizing and I chose not to move to Wichita. So my former CFO and I founded APC that year,” Segel says.

Segel affectionately calls HPP “the mother of all batch systems.”

“I remember during meetings in 2002 and 2003…no one thought HPP could be used for fresh meat products; it was being used only for ready-to-eat meat products and some non-meat products, such as salsa and raisins.

“Hats off to Cargill,” he adds. “It took [two years] of stringent testing [of Fressure product] and a lot of validation. Cargill never gave up.”

Vacuum-packaged Fressure products are loaded into a pressure chamber and water is added before sealing the chamber. The chamber is programmed to increase the pressure to a predetermined level and sustain it for a set period of time. The chamber is then decompressed and drained and product is removed. Dialing in the correct pressure and dwell times to achieve the food-safety goals without effecting the appearance or texture of the product is a prerequisite for food products being treated. Packaging is not damaged nor is the product crushed because pressure is equally applied to all surfaces of the product.

The ground-beef product is then sent to the pack-off area where packages are dried off, labels are applied, and packing, bar coding and palletizing occurs, before being shipped directly to Cargill’s distributors.

APC’s facility consists of 25,000 sq. ft. of refrigerated space (where the HPP process is conducted), a 5,000-sq.-ft. adjacent cooler and 10,000 sq. ft. of dry storage, says Edmund Wabiszewski, vice president of operations and a seven-year company veteran. About 100 people work at the facility on two shifts, five days a week.

“We will have four HPP units operating by Aug. 26,” he says. “We have two Avure 215 liter vertical units; each has a capacity of 10 million lbs. annually. We also have two Avure 350 horizontal units [one was being installed in late August], that each have a capacity of about 15 million lbs. of product per year. We can treat close to 1 million lbs. of all products a week.”

Jan Hood, senior product manager with Wichita, Kan.-based Cargill Value Added Meats Foodservice, says HPP makes a significant food-safety enhancement for Fressure products and demand for product is increasing.

Segel calls Fressure’s extended shelf-life “huge” because it gives end-users more time to get a high-quality, fresh product through the supply chain. “Before Fressure, there was a lot of waste,” he says, which forced many foodservice operators into using expiring product to make lower-margin items, such as chili or spaghetti with meat sauce. “This allows folks to use a fresh product that addresses many of the issues that sometimes come with fresh ground beef.”

The health-care industry, in particular, offers opportunities for Fressure products. “Many health-care providers use pre-cooked patties today. Fressure patties yield a much better eating experience plus they provide a clean label,” Hood says.

Cargill featured an easy-peel film across the Fressure package since early on in the process. “We have improved this,” she adds. “Vacuum pouches yield one stack of patties at a time so you don’t have to expose all products in the package. The package has easy-to-see perforations giving the operator the ability to easily divide the package without opening all product pouches. In addition, each pouch is marked with a code-date for traceability.”

Significant packaging parameters are not necessary for the HPP process – as long as the package is flexible and has the seal strength to withstand 15 percent compression, says Greg Zaja, vice president of sales and R&D and a long-time member of the APC team. “Almost any packaging will work through the high-pressure process,” he adds. “Most standard barrier bags work. Even some modified atmosphere packaging works [but at a slower throughput]. It’s more challenging when you’re working with containers.

“You have to marry the film structure along with the container and the product head space during the 15 percent compression,” he says. “If that seal strength and the body of the film structure does not withstand that 15 percent compression and bounce back to form, you’re going to have issues.”

In recent years, many film suppliers have developed packaging with reseal features that better withstand the HPP process, Zaja says.

Gaining momentum

APC’s entire business is approximately 80 percent meat-related and includes treating beef, poultry, turkey, chicken, pork and sausages as well as exports. “We’re doing quite a bit of product lately for export to Japan,” Segel says, including fresh Bratwurst. “The Japanese do not want product frozen and then thawed when it gets there – it has to be fresh.”

Segel says as much as 90 percent of the meat products treated at APC are ready-to-eat items and the balance is raw. “This mix may change dramatically in the next five months,” Segel says teasingly looking at Hood. “As the Fressure idea catches fire, we may see more than patties. I know the technology also works beautifully on chubs.”

Promising future

Segel is high on the future of HPP in the US. “We’re going to see exponential growth in product treated with HPP as people realize the value proposition,” he predicts. “There are costs to anything you do to a product, but there’s also the value proposition to consider. They may pay a little more up front for Fressure products, but then they also shouldn’t endure mark downs, yield loss, waste and supply-chain issues. Likewise, you’re not having to do short production runs and you can do a better job of risk management on raw materials.

“When we first started seven years ago, everyone was talking about cost,” he adds. “Now we’re having more conversations on what do we do with packaging, how logistics work, what tests are needed to run and how a company can adopt this technology.”

Like any new product introduction, preparing to rollout the Fressure products posed some initial challenges, while also allowing Cargill to improve some processes as it worked through some of the logistics. For example, shipping the Fressure patties initially required adjusting the temperature of the shipping containers. “When we first started,” Dykstra says, “we were used to frozen shipments,” and in some cases shipping temperatures were too cold, resulting in a frozen crust forming on some of the fresh patties. Simple temperature adjustments were made and this logistical hiccup was quickly addressed. Another opportunity that arose during the development of the Fressure program involved modifying the shape of the patty papers used to separate each burger, from square to octagon shape, which eliminated sealing issues and improved appearance, Dykstra says.

Outsourcing the process to APC and introducing HPP-treated ground beef patties first to foodservice customers made sense for a number of reasons, company representatives say. Not having the financial burden of investing in the equipment has an obvious benefit, while the foodservice segment stood to gain the most by extending shelf-life and having fewer shipments. “Given the capital investment and expertise required vs. the volume being processed and the expertise of APC,” says Mike Martin, Cargill’s director of communication, the outsourcing arrangement works best. Bringing the processing step in-house, he says, is “beyond the horizon.” While Cargill’s recent recall of 36 million lbs. of ground turkey might beg the question of ‘why not use HPP to treat other ground products,’ including turkey, Martin says, “We’ll take a look, but it likely does not work well for some of the case-ready products.” On the retail front, maintaining the ideal color for HPP-treated ground beef is another challenge that has not been perfected.

Improved food safety combined with sensory-based research indicating the product’s original taste does not degrade as its shelf-life approaches expiration, the value proposition shoots up exponentially, according to Hood.

“We found that many users of fully cooked patties are focused on food safety,” Hood says, which often comes at the expense of freshness. Since the rollout of Fressure, demand has spanned several foodservice segments. “There has been a mix of small operators and those who were using frozen patties,” she says, “and now even some of the chains.” Being able to extend shelf-life also allows foodservice operators to offer a natural burger that maintains freshness. For foodservice operators with multiple locations, Fressure burgers can play a key role in their “regional efforts to make everything more consistent system wide,” Hood says.

Acceptance of HPP by Cargill’s customers and among consumers is an obvious prerequisite for the segment to grow. “Getting the industry to understand that it’s a game changer,” Dykstra says, isn’t a huge leap of faith.

The “natural” aspect of HPP treatment is also appealing to Cargill’s customers, whereas with some other technologies, including irradiation, some stigmas still exist. “With HPP you don’t have to put a Radura symbol on it,” Hood points out.

In terms of value and ROI for Cargill and its customers, the application of HPP likely makes the most sense for those serving premium products. “Because it’s a batch-based system, some costs are going to be incurred,” Dykstra says. However, “in the grand scheme, the value and savings more than overcome the additional costs,” which come in the form of fewer shipments for distributors and less waste for foodservice operators.

Meanwhile, improving food safety serves as icing on the cake for this segment, Hood says.

“At Cargill, food safety is not something we take lightly. We continue to look for ways to enhance the safety of our food, to invest in technologies and also continue to be an innovation leader in products and food safety. Fressure underscores Cargill’s commitment to product innovation and food safety,” she concludes.
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