Thirty-five percent of Miller Poultry's production comes in the form of whole bird. Eighteen percent of that is individually bagged.
While whole bird packaging doesn’t reach the volume that modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) reaches, it still represents a considerable amount of chickens. A recent poultry packaging study offered by Report Buyer, states that US demand for poultry packaging will be driven by convenience and the ready-to-eat poultry market.
The ready-to-eat market has positioned itself to capitalize on the trend of consumers looking for convenience. The report continues to say that consumers use rotisserie chickens – packaged as whole birds at production facilities whether individual or bulk – to shorten or eliminate meal preparation time while still eating food perceived as healthy.
Of the approximately 35 percent of production at Miller Poultry consisting of whole birds, around 18 percent of them are individually bagged, and about eight percent are tray pack, cut up whole birds with the remainder packaged in bulk. At Miller, the customer often sets the parameters in the determination of which birds get further processed versus those that remain whole.
“The key factors in determining which birds to use for whole birds are weight and grade,” says Roger Stearns, plant manager at Miller Poultry. “Many of our customers require weight ranges in 0.5-lb. increments (example: 3.25 lbs. to 3.75 lbs.). This aids the grocery store in their cooking process to ensure consistent cooking times for both food safety (reaching proper cook temp) and quality (not overcooked). Our customers look for and expect a grade that is greater than a USDA grade A chicken for their rotisserie programs.”
At Fieldale Farms, customers help in determining what happens during processing for whole birds, as well. According to David Rackley, plant manager, the injection for whole birds usually consists of some sort of sea salt brine. Then a spice combination preferred by the customer will be used in a rub form, providing the correct flavor. Fieldale runs a two-bird program with the smaller of the two, 4.5 lbs. live weight, used for whole bird products. A shackle scale coupled with computer software sends the birds where they need to go according to weight.
Individually bagged birds make up the bulk of Miller Poultry's whole bird processing.
Whole bird tech
As with all current technologies, whole bird packaging-specific technology has evolved considerably in the past five to 10 years. According to Stearns, a key change in the category has come in the form of choices in the available machinery processors have access to. Miller uses Cryovac/Sealed Air on its whole bird packaging line. “Cryovac has several models of packaging machines to choose from,” he says. “Models range in speed/birds per minute depending on your capacity needs.”
When faced with the multitude of choices available for packaging whole birds, plant managers and executives need to consider how each different machine might fit into the overall scheme and layout of the facility. “The overall footprint of the machine is important as it needs to fit into the plant comfortably and increase the efficiency of the product,” he adds. Stearns goes on to explain another piece of the evolution whole bird packaging has experienced in recent years. “Packaging has also evolved from ‘bird in a bag’ to specialty bags such as bags with carry handles built-in and ‘cook-in bags.’”
Other important attributes for processors to consider when looking at whole bird-chicken and turkey packaging include leak resistance, abuse resistance, skin tight shrink for best product visual appeal and softness and flexibility for loading and handling.
Aside from the typical bird in a bag type whole bird packaging, some whole birds will be cut up tray pack or bulk packaged. Miller uses an Ossid machine to tray pack its cut up whole birds, as well as wings, thighs, drumsticks, breasts and some backs.
For bulk whole bird packaging, Miller uses a CVP multi-line sealer which sucks the air out of the large, multi-bird bag, administers a puff of CO2 and seals the bag for shipment.
With health and wellness becoming more mainstream and less of a trend in foodservice, both restaurant and retail, rotisserie chicken continues to grow as a go-to product for consumers that look for the marriage of convenience and health.