While automation is playing a more prominent role in poultry processing, certain production steps will always require the input of humans.

In response to the labor shortage that is plaguing the meat and poultry industry, equipment suppliers are doing their part to address the problem by developing technology to fill the growing void of line workers. For the poultry processing sector, the challenge facing the operators of many large-scale plants is efficiently and consistently cutting up and deboning millions of carcasses each day. Automation is playing a much bigger part in this process, but the role of people working on deboning lines will likely never be completely replaced, according to most industry veterans. Maximizing yields and limiting wasted product from each carcass as a step to producing more profitable value-added products is the Holy Grail.

On most manual poultry deboning lines, workers typically use straight knives, manual scissors or a combination of both. Line workers are assigned to debone a specific poultry part, which can include breasts, thighs or legs. Breast meat is traditionally removed directly from the carcass while it is on the cone line. After the breast meat is removed and usually while the carcass is still on the cone, tender pullers remove the tenders from the breast bone. Depending on the type of product, other meat cuts are deboned on a stationary, flat or tilted cutting surface. Dark meat, including legs, is often deboned using a Whizzard, automatic handheld knife and a specialized conveyor belt.

When comparing input weights with finished weights, yields of skinless thighs average approximately 65 percent, depending on the skill and experience of the line workers. Rates also depend on the type of product being produced and if workers are incentivized to achieve yield targets. In most cases, minimizing the toll taken on line workers stationed on deboning lines for many hours every day is one of the most cost-effective ways to maximize throughput while stemming rising employee turnover.

Setting the tone

John Flood, a food industry executive who retired in 2017 as vice president and general manager of prepared foods with Wayne Farms, Oakwood, Georgia, understands the challenges the meat and poultry processing industry face each day. Flood founded Elevate in 2018 and is now a business performance expert. He consults with business executives and their teams to assess and put processes in place that allow executive teams to focus on what’s important. He and his partner, Morris Pickens, Ph.D., place special emphasis on developing talent at the executive level that trickle down throughout organizations. One of the more daunting challenges he knows all too well is recruiting, hiring, and retaining workers, especially when it comes to filling positions on the processing floor. With his 38 years in the meat processing industry, he notes the process of deboning in poultry processing plants, as with any upstream meat processor, sets the tone for the raw product that is used downstream in further processing, where the impact of what is harvested from the carcass is magnified. Just as in further processing, there is still plenty of room for upstream improvement in poultry processing operations to reduce the unintended consequences inconsistency brings, including bone and foreign material elimination, Flood says.

The product that is harvested during the process of deboning “has to be the benchmark,” he says, because for many processors it is at that point “when you start adding value.” That value can be enhanced downstream through reduction in downtime, increasing first-quality finished goods that will result in higher customer satisfaction and ultimately, direct P&L benefits. Beyond maximizing yields and limiting waste, says Flood, “Food safety and bone elimination is critically important to the poultry industry.” Too often though, “there is a disconnect upstream, including on the boning lines, to what is being received downstream and the implications that can result.”

In general, Flood says, there is risk when poultry processing companies view fresh processing and the associated further processing as separate cost-and-profit centers, without a clear understanding and allocation of associated, often unintended, cost impacts. He says, “There are things you can do to prop up your profits on the fresh side of the business, including deboning, that will be more than offset and lost downstream when you get into the further processed side of the business. A lot of companies though are not aggressive in addressing this and aren’t holding the two groups jointly responsible in working together to fix an issue upstream.” At Wayne Farms this was an area of emphasis to balance and understand, knowing that what gets measured gets done, and in the end, the full corporate P&L would benefit.

As an example, investing in and adding a penny to the raw product cost might be offset by a savings of 1.5 cents on the back side, says Flood. And those half pennies and tenths of pennies that are worth millions of dollars to companies, when only looked at through one lens can be misleading because they often only tell half of the story and can hide opportunities for improvement.

The process of deboning in poultry processing plants sets the tone for the raw product that is used downstream in further processing. Source: NWA Photography

The human touch

He points out that a lot of the challenges poultry processors face on the operations side of the deboning process cannot be fixed with capital alone and many of the issues are directly related to labor. Industry statistics on turnover in the poultry industry are startling. “When you’ve got companies that have anywhere from 40 percent up to 110 percent turnover of their employees it is impossible for them to do a great job consistently,” Flood says. “They’re in a constant frenzy of training and replacing workers and it is a huge issue.”

While turnover is a necessary evil in the meat and poultry industry, processors that accept it as the norm, without looking for additional, off the processing line contributors to employee dissatisfaction are doing themselves a disservice. In many cases, employees will suggest solutions “if they are asked” for feedback. Often, shifting capital to add or enhance amenities in the name of employee welfare is a cost-effective way of making a demanding, repetitive job more bearable. According to Flood, something as simple as minor improvements to break rooms or locker rooms can go far toward improving retention. “The line is already hard work, why would you want to make it even harder and more miserable by not providing these employees a comfortable environment in their locker rooms, bathrooms and break rooms?” he says. When it comes to poultry deboning, “It’s not an easy job,” Flood says, “and it’s something companies wrestle with all of the time. There’s very little they can do to make that a glamorous job.”

During Flood’s time at Wayne Farms, providing workers with free Wi-Fi in the break area was one example of how management delivered on something hourly workers said would be a nice perk to allow them to maintain contact with family and friends or access the internet before and after shifts. These types of amenities are often taken for granted by office workers. Previously, for line workers, “There was limited access to the outside world,” Flood says. With these types of investments, he says, those workers might think, “‘Well, this is a hard job, but I can tell this company cares about me.’”

Spending sense

As plant operators become ensconced in all of the data monitoring and measuring of productivity, efficiencies on the line and throughput, the natural reaction is to funnel all the capital spending to improve operations out in the plant.

However, “with a little bit of capital in those break rooms and other employee areas, all of a sudden you can impact what is happening out on the plant. If you improve the efficiency of your employees, you may not need to spend a lot of money out in the plant because you have a labor force that knows what they’re doing, you’ve got lower turnover and you’re going to get better results.”