Ground beef remains a staple food in the United States due to availability, variety and ease of preparation. Quick-service restaurant (QSR) consumers vote for their favorite items everyday with their purchases, and there’s no doubt burgers win every time. Whether on foodservice menus or in the retail case, ground beef is the undisputed volume champion of beef products.

“Technomic puts out their burger report every year, and the one that came out last year commented that 55% of consumers in the US either eat a burger at home or at foodservice at least once a week,” said Misty High, president of Cargill Protein, Foodservice. “So, to me that tells you that hamburgers continue to be on trend and continue to be important to consumers if the majority of us are eating them at least once a week.”

High has worked with Cargill Protein for 15 years, in roles that include marketing, sales, foodservice and retail positions, as well as running Cargill’s ground beef plant in Fresno, Calif., before moving to her present position.

With the volume of ground beef produced for American consumers comes a need for processors to present products in a way that checks the boxes consumers and customers demand from retailers and suppliers. What individual customers or consumers want in a ground beef package might vary from person to person and business to business, but there are some attributes High knows all customers agree on.

Staple packaging goals

One- to 10-lb chubs for retail make up roughly one-third of the Cargill Grind plant’s business.

Retailers generate less waste and giveaway the longer products last. This consequently adds to the bottom line and guarantees optimization of potential revenue and consumer satisfaction. Everyone in the supply chain and consumer environments benefits when packaging provides these attributes.

“The trend has been anything that will help with shelf life,” High said. “So, increasing and keeping the quality up and increasing that shelf life.”

Another aspect of packaging retailers, foodservice suppliers and consumers alike can all agree on is making sustainable and environmentally sound packaging a priority, not only for ground beef, but across all consumables and packaged goods.

“There’s also reducing waste,” High said. “Whether that’s trimming a corner off a box or reducing the amount of plastic, it’s a constant. I would say the workstream we have with most of our customers is eliminating any unnecessary waste around the packaging betters the business.”

The Grind facility

Hourly employees palletize chubs by hand before they are sent to cold storage or shipping.

The Cargill Grind plant in Fort Worth, Texas, represents one of Cargill Protein Groups’ highest-volume ground beef plants. It produces both fresh and frozen patty ground beef and has received multiple industry accolades for throughput and customer service. With such a high volume, and broad and dedicated customer base, the Fort Worth grind facility takes packaging as seriously as any other process.

One- to 10-lb chubs for retail make up roughly one-third of the facility’s business. Once the stuffer fills the vinyl with beef, a fully programmable JLS Osprey robot packs the boxes according to size and pattern. The SKUs are programmed and can be changed to accommodate orders with the push of a button. Operators can change end-of-arm tooling, the gripper that picks up the chubs to load into boxes, in about two minutes.

Currently, hourly employees palletize chubs by hand before they are sent to cold storage or shipping, but the facility has an automation plan in place for the next fiscal year.

“We have commitments in our capital plan to address more ergonomic problem areas where we can put in robotics automation,” said Allen Boelter, complex manager, Fort Worth, Cargill Protein Group. “Specifically, one would be to add another large robot to help with the fresh chub packaging area. So that’ll help eliminate some strenuous box stacking roles.”

The FSQR (food safety, quality and regulatory) test kitchen takes daily samples from the plant’s two retail fresh ground beef chub lines in the various weights and sizes to test shelf life. Chubs are rotated throughout a cycle in the same temperature as a refrigerated retail case. Staff manages and records performance while giving real time feedback to plant employees involved with packaging. Records provide data not only for formulation and fabrication, but packaging, in this case chub vinyl, performance.

The other two-thirds of the Fort Worth grind plant’s production, and the bulk of its business and margin, comes in the form of frozen patties for QSR customers, with a negligible fraction of fresh patties going to retail.

A Tomahawk Manufacturing former makes the patties out of a fresh batch formulation and they are then sent through a freezing tunnel to a packing station where they’re bagged and boxed by hand. Packing patties manually is the most demanding job in the plant, said Flavio Castaneda, production superintendent, Cargill Value Added Meats, Foodservice. At the Fort Worth plant, new hires ramp up to a full shift of patty packing over a four-week period to get used to the intense labor.

“We tell the new hires to let us know if they’re getting sore,” Castaneda said. “Once they’re at a full shift we rotate them throughout the day changing from the left side to right side every hour.”

Part of the packaging process includes pulling samples from newly frozen stacks waiting to be bagged and boxed and checked against customer specifications.

Once boxed up, but not sealed, a conveyor moves the frozen patties to stations where product is manually weighed and adjusted by removal or addition of a patty to hit the customer’s preferred weight. At this point in the process, a record of the plant’s giveaway is recorded for future reference and to ensure ongoing packaging improvement and consistency.

Castaneda said in the spring or early summer the manual weighing and labeling process for frozen patty packaging will be another part of the process to transition to automation. Once automated, employees currently occupying those roles will not be let go, but moved to a new position and trained, if necessary.

All frozen patty conveyors lead to the robot room for palletization. One of three large robots picks cases of frozen patties off the conveyor and begins building pallets according to customer order. Once built, pallets are moved to cold storage for the customer’s designated period completing the packaging process and starting the shipping process.