sliced bacon at Burgers' Smokehouse
In 1927, E.M. Burger cured his first six hams using a recipe passed down from his mother. In 1952, Burgers’ Smokehouse began as a business when the original ham house was built in California, Missouri.

Today, bacon stands as one of the most popular items Burgers’ produces. Burgers’ dry cures its bacon and naturally wood smokes the bacon adding no water. Burgers’ offers Country Bacon and City Bacons in multiple flavors along with Bacon Steak, Canadian Bacon, Ham Bacon and more.

Keith Fletcher, Burgers' Smokehouse
Keith Fletcher, senior vice president of operations at Burgers’ Smokehouse

Keith Fletcher, senior vice president of operations at Burgers’, spoke with MEAT+POULTRY to discuss the evolution of slicing technology and some of the unique challenges Burgers’ faces in its bacon business and how it overcomes them.

MEAT+POULTRY: How has bacon, and customer and consumer demand, evolved past a one-size-fits-all slicing solution?

Keith Fletcher: Being a smaller processor like we are, we get a lot of requests for a few more SKUs and it’s difficult to get one machine that can deliver on all those different things. The automation in bacon is great, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s done really well, but we have tried to get machinery that will do two to three different slice thicknesses and deliver them to a card.

We still have some old Anco slicers that we have to get the slices to a specific thickness. We get requests for certain items that it’s somewhat difficult for the really automated machines to lay out properly. We have really three styles of bacon slicers. One being an automated card line, another one being an automated card line that’s just a little different in how it functions and then we have the hand lines that actually run out a little at a time to hand load each slab, so we can control that slice very well.

A line worker at Burgers' Smokhouse ensures slices of bacon are properly arranged on the package card.

M+P: How has technology advanced in slicing equipment over the years and how has the resulting speed, precision and consistency influenced the expectations of today’s processors?

Fletcher: I think it’s tremendously better than it was 10 years ago. They’ve got vision systems, they’ve got better scale systems that allow the machine to make changes on the fly to give you a better weight control and better yield control. They’ve got machines, and we have one, that will dump the end slices off to a point until it reads so much lean, and then go into your center slices. So, in terms of the evolution and effort to deliver the processor a much easier to manage and navigate system, I think they’ve done a good job as an industry.

M+P: How do the inevitable challenges negatively impact your process, whether it be raw product consistency, conveying, packaging, appearance, etc.?

Fletcher: Belly sizing is important to an operation like ours; we’re not large enough that we can sit down and source through all the bellies. When we get a combo in we have to utilize what we have and make it run down the line. The more consistent your product is, the more consistent your slicing will be. The newer systems have a lot of things that help minimize those types of problems.

Also, temperature, and that’s an internal control. The temperature has got to be right on that bacon for the machinery to perform the way it needs to. If it’s the right temperature, those machines work right. So, your internal control on temperatures is imperative to giving the machinery a chance to do its job.

M+P: You mention belly sizes. Can you discuss the influence of size?

Fletcher: I think most of the equipment operators can get a machine to do what they need as long as the bellies are consistent. Bellies are bigger than they used to be, and that’s just because the hogs are larger. I think the pigs that we have in the US today are very consistent size wise. So, I think the packers are doing a good job of delivering us a consistent product more so than they did maybe 20 years ago. I think most of us are leaning to that 13-lb. to 17-lb. belly in our niche of the business.

M+P: How does slicing for retail and slicing for foodservice differ?

Fletcher: In our case, you’ve got to remember we’re a smaller processor, we try to deliver the same quality to retail and foodservice. We have a spec that says this is an end slice, and this is a center slice, and it’s based upon some lean requirements and looks of the product. I think the requirements for them do change for a lot of companies, not necessarily us, in that foodservice bacon is usually cooked when the customer sees it, whereas on the retail side, the appearance to get the customer to pick that package up is always imperative. Whether the shingle is right, whether the package lays right and whether it displays a satisfactory amount of lean on the packaging side of it matter greatly.

I think you’ve always got to look at that, having an appealing package that the customer is going to at least look at when they walk by the counter as they make their buying decision, and not just for the dollars and cents of it.

M+P: Can you talk about the flexibility of the slicers that Burgers’ uses for its bacon?

Fletcher: One line is very flexible and can do a lot of things for us. Depending on the size of the runs and what else we’re doing, we can run product on some different lines that maybe aren’t quite as automated, but we can still survive with the productivity we get out of them and the product works fine.

It’s a productivity thing for us. I have one slicer, it will do a lot of things for us, but we utilize that machinery to do what we think is the most productive for us that given day. We offload other slicing options to the other machines based on what we think we can get our best package and productivity out of.

There’s just some little things you get into with customers. We do a retail mail order business and there’s just a few things that you do small volume of to fill a niche market that we utilize those smaller slicers or less automated slicers for.

M+P: Do you think the rest of the slicing equipment such as conveyors and packaging equipment are keeping pace with slicing technology?

Fletcher: I think they have made great strides in the vacuuming equipment in the last few years. A lot of the bigger companies have gone to horizontal form-fill machines and yes, I think they work hard at trying to keep up that capacity so that’s not the bottleneck. I think they’ve made a lot of progress. There are two or three companies in that arena in the last several years that I think are satisfactory.

And as far as bacon presses go, yes, I think the presses have improved. I think you just have to match your capacity with the number of presses that you need to keep up with that capacity. In our case, being a smaller volume producer, we can make it match up pretty well.

M+P: Does that improvement apply for the hygiene in today’s slicers and slicing equipment, as well?

Fletcher: The machinery is much better than it was 10 or 15 years ago. I think operators are paying attention to how easy is it to clean and how safe is it to clean. I think they’re all doing a much better job. I really believe that. As far as how the equipment is designed in order to be able to clean it, be able to tear it down, and be sure that you can reach all the areas for sanitation, I think they’re doing a much better job. I really do.

M+P: What are common signs a crew looks for when it comes to quality issues related to slicers during and after a production shift?

Fletcher: From our standpoint, we utilize that as a QA function. We do measurements on slice thicknesses, averages, fat to lean and also, we can look at our slices and determine blade changes and things like that, as far as being sure that your blades are sharp to deliver a crisp cut across that slice rather than dragging and pulling on it. You can notice all that in your slices when they’re coming off.