In the land of pork, belly bacon is king. Even as inflation has recently pushed the average price of bacon at retail to over $7 per lb, demand continues to increase for everyone’s favorite salty, smokey meat.
Packers need reliable, efficient meat injectors to keep store shelves stocked with packages of shingled, stack-packed or layout-style sliced bacon.
Equipment manufacturers continue to innovate pork belly injectors to increase speed of production without compromising consistency. Yet, companies vary on the best approach to more efficient production from number of needles to pickle filtration to injection pressure.
For years, the market standard for bacon injectors was the Townsend 1450, which uses hypodermic needles to inject brine, said Henrik Thrysoe, product manager marination at GEA Food Solutions North America Inc.
“If you’re injecting bellies with hypodermic needles, you’re actually cutting meat fibers. Whereas, a side port needle just moves the fibers apart and then they come back together again, but hasn’t cut anything,” he said.
Moving the meat fibers, as opposed to cutting them, allows the bellies to retain more of the brine; especially, when the bellies are put through massagers, vibrators or tumblers after injection. The massaging of the meat further closes any holes and prevents post-injection, brine purge.
GEA’s Multijectors use tight needle patterns that apply less pressure to the bellies. A reduced pressure in the injection process decreases brine pockets and “tiger/zebra striping,” or uneven brine distribution in the bellies.
In recent years, pork bellies have increased in size and weight. Injector manufacturers are adjusting equipment designs to account for the larger, fattier bellies being processed.
“They used to be like 13 to 15 lbs. Now, they’re 15 to 17 to 19 lbs.,” Thrysoe said. “And as the fat quality has been falling, the industry has serious challenges with return pickle filtration and, eventually, clogged needles.”
GEA’s new needle cleaning technology takes seven minutes to fully flush out and sanitize Multijector line needles. The process uses high-pressure rinsing, ultrasonic vibration, alkaline baths, UV light and air pressure to eliminate clogged needles.
Clogged needles can significantly impact the efficiency of an injector line. If needles become blocked by fat or particulates, then the brine will not inject evenly, and a technician will have to stop the line to replace or clean needles before continuing with production.
Reiser, based in Canton, Mass., has innovated its Fomaco Injectors with self-cleaning FM80 filters to avoid needle clogging without as much manual maintenance.
“The FM80’s filter basket is smaller in screen size than the actual needles to eliminate those particulates prior to the brine being delivered to the needle head or needles,” said Scott Steinman, application specialist at Reiser. “The FM80 features rotating scrapers inside the filter basket to keep the filter clean.”
Fomaco Injectors can also be outfitted with a “continuous belt filter” saddle tank that takes away all the initial heavy and large debris, meat piercings, foam or undissolved brine ingredients that can potentially clog needles, Steinman said.
Two filtration methods allow the Fomaco Injectors to produce consistent results without halting production.
Consistent yields and more throughput – bellies per minute – is the main focus for pork belly injectors.
Reiser’s injector needles can adjust to the size and height of the pork bellies. By reducing the stroke height of the needles based on the height of the product, processors can increase their throughput.
“Bacon has a fatty and skin layer and there is no reason to inject that deep into that,” Steinman said. “Plus, the fat will not cure so there is no reason to inject that deep.”
A shorter needle stroke increases processing speeds allowing for more bellies per minute to be injected and ready for hanging.
Mundelein, Ill.-based Precipak’s Gunther Injectors are Servo-driven machines that allow flexibility and versatility in the range of variables that can be changed for pork belly applications.
Gunther injectors provide easy-to-use touch screens so needle settings can be adjusted rapidly. The injectors can be set to apply shorter needle strokes that increase processing speeds allowing for more bellies per minute to be processed.
Gunther injectors allow contact injection of the stripper plate which reduces instances of brine pooling between lean and fat portions of bellies and provides an even distribution throughout bellies, eliminating “tiger” striping.
Needle number needs
When it comes to injection needles, more is not necessarily better. At least that is part of the philosophy at JBT Corp., headquartered in Chicago. Reducing the variability and maintaining a consistent product is most important when designing pork belly injectors.
“In the bacon world, standard deviation is everything,” said Dale Hunt, technical processing manager at JBT. “If we don’t have a very tight standard deviation, basically the salt level in the bacon would vary.”
JBT’s line of MEPSCO Ultracat Injectors offer accurate results in both a single or double-wide format. Typically, the wider machines offer less precision because the injectors move the brine further. But the needle stitch pattern in the JBT machines favors fewer needles working more efficiently.
“If you’ve got a tough piece of meat and you’ve pushed 500 nails into this piece of meat, you’ve stretched the heck out of it,” Hunt said. “The more stainless steel we try to poke into the meat, the more displacement we have.”
Displacement means that the brine will not evenly distribute throughout the belly but collect in the softer tissue.
Proper pork belly injection is a balancing act between the optimal needle contact with the meat and the brine pressure being injected. Too much of either and the brine is not retained in the meat. Too little and the bellies don’t brine consistently.
Part of that consistency comes from an accurate stripper foot, the foot that comes down and strips the needles back off the belly. A proper stripper foot will follow the contour of each individual belly.
JBT injectors use floating stripper feet that maintain an even, constant pressure to the bellies, Hunt said.
This even pressure prevents brine pockets in the meat as well as reduces the volume of brine that is not reaching the bellies themselves.
Efficiency is important on any meat processing line. For pork belly injectors, the variables are all about the minor details. An injector line that is processing over 20 bellies per minute needs to prevent as much loss as possible. Even small amounts of brine lost can add up to bigger costs of production over time.
Consistency of product also makes a big difference when the finished belly bacon is ready to be sliced. Brine pockets and uneven injection can reduce the value of each belly.
Injection manufacturers are continually innovating their equipment designs to account for less lost brine and faster, more efficient injection so processors can meet volume demand while maximizing product potential.