The popularity of bacon is well documented and continues to be a profit center for many meat processors. Whether operations are part of a dedicated bacon processing plant or bacon is just one part of a diverse, value-added line-up of a plant’s products, including artisan or even pre-cooked bacon, the checklist of requirements for processing bellies into slices of heaven for customers can vary significantly from one facility to another. On the wish list of all processors is optimizing yields, maximizing efficiencies, controlling labor cost and achieving all these goals while using as little square footage in the plant as possible. The ultimate solution checks all those boxes and offers processors a whole-line, integrated solution to produce bacon to meet the quality and quantity requirements of today’s foodservice and retail customers.

Initiating innovations

“The three top drivers of processors in the bacon space have been to increase throughput in the same footprint with less people,” said Jarrod McCarroll, chief executive officer of Weber Inc., based in Kansas City, Mo.

Given the cost to build a new facility or to renovate and retrofit an existing plant to accommodate the latest technology to churn out thousands of pounds of bacon a day, processors expect a processing line should use the same, or less floor space than more dated, traditional lines. Couple that challenge with the rising cost to recruit, train and retain workers on those lines while meeting the growing demand for more bacon production, and it is not surprising that for some processors, an automated, integrated, full-line solution is the ultimate goal.

For those companies, Weber provides levels of automation to meet the various needs of its customers, depending on their production volume and the tier of solution that is feasible. Making that transition doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition, but benefits can be realized at all levels, according to Nate Riordan, Weber’s bacon segment leader.

“Automating segments or critical control points can benefit any processor. Making the key steps in the integrated solution require less labor and time is a positive impact in any bacon production plant,” Riordan said. “The Weber solution is scalable, so if a customer needs to grow from a manual operation into a fully integrated and automated solution, they are able to do that easily. The cost of entry allows for everyone to have the opportunity.”

For processors seeking end-to-end integrated bacon processing technology, Weber offers a complete retail bacon processing line that was recognized at the 2023 Process Expo with the Innovation Award for the Best New Technology for Automation.

“The Weber fully automated bacon solution operates as one machine doing several different operations from the belly to the final package,” Riordan said. “The solution is designed with the sole purpose for managing the bacon draft in whatever format the customer desires, from the moment it is introduced to the line through packaging. This allows the solution to manage the draft and make decisions that allow for more throughput and easier handling of portions that need correction.”

McCarroll said Weber’s automated retail bacon line combines its leading slicing technology with the latest innovations in automation and packaging, delivering industry-leading capacity, maximizing pounds per square foot and pounds per man hour.

“A single integrated solution allows processors to have complete line control; not line management with disparate systems, that enables the line to work as one machine making the decisions that impact performance and throughput,” McCarroll said.

With many processors specializing in artisan-style bacon utilizing heritage breeds and various flavor profiles and processing steps, processing line integration and automation is not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

“Our process is to test and run the applications our customers are wanting to develop. While we have seen success with many different styles of bacon, they are all a little unique and may require some different tooling and blade technology to achieve those results,” McCarroll said.

He added that those results start with slicing.

“Once we have control of the sliced portion, we can build the solutions to automate from there. We begin with a discussion on what our customer’s perfect portion is and we solve for that,” he said.

Throughout the process, the role of effective imaging technology provides the information and data all the components utilize.

“Imaging systems are critical for the verification and control of the products from start to finish. We need to have accurate information on the condition and orientation of the portion from the time we decide on how to slice it, until it is a final package of bacon going into a box,” Riordan said. “Finding the correct blend in imaging that allows for objectivity in product and process changes while still providing detailed portion data to the processing line is a fine line that we have found a perfect blend to support.”

GEA injections 2.jpgPork belly injection technology from GEA's MultiJector ensures consistency in the brine amount and the injection pressure while improving retention of the brine. (Source: GEA)

Meeting many needs

Frisco, Texas-based GEA recently launched its new continuous bacon process, designed to significantly increase speed and capacity and specializing in ready-to-cook bacon processing. The company’s approach with its technology is taking the ‘batch’ out of bacon production and simplifying the process.

Henrik Thrysoe, product manager of marination equipment for GEA in North America said its solution offers processors labor savings, pickle savings and yield improvement on each slice as a result of delivering product consistency. Significant labor savings and process consistency are also realized in the smoking process using the GEA solution.

“We see 1% to 2.5% on first quality [bacon] and a reduction on seconds,” he said. “That means more high-dollar premium slices out the door and less bacon bits.”

GEA’s solution comes with the option of a fully incorporated smoking stage, which saves processors time compared to using conventional smokehouses for this step. GEA’s signature injection technology, the MultiJector 2 mm, injects a consistent amount of brine into bellies using a dense needle pattern for even distribution and retention of the brine.

Thrysoe said the MultiJector utilizes OptiFlex needles, which flex without breaking and are stronger than stainless steel needles that are common in other injectors. That tight, 2 mm needle pattern ensures the optimum amount of brine is delivered inside each belly. Thanks to valves controlling the amount of brine in each needle and controlled pressure of between 20-24 psi, brine waste is reduced by approximately 3%.

“The unique injection process allows us to inject less and retain more,” Thrysoe said, adding that maintaining a cold temperature of bellies throughout the injection process is vital to increase water holding capacity and facilitating better absorption of the brine by activating myosin protein.

GEA’s MultiShaker conveying technology follows the injection process. Injected bellies are flipped, meat side down, and the MultiShaker vibrates bellies to ensure retention, removing excess brine, closing needle marks in the meat and activating the protein so it is ready for the smoking process.

GEA’s CookStar cooking and smoking solution allows processors to transition from batch processing to in-line processing, ensuring continuous, uninterrupted production. Bellies lie flat through the spiral cooking and smoking process, eliminating the traditional labor-intensive process of inserting combs in each belly for hanging in smokehouses, which can also cause excessive loss of the brine and alter the shape of the belly.

“The CookStar’s superheat smoking capability can be configured for natural smoke, liquid atomized smoke or liquid smoke drench for smoking bacon with up to 60% reduction in process time for perfect, equally smoked, ready-to-cook bacon at 122°F to 124°F,” Thrysoe said.

After the smoking step, bacon hardening is handled by GEA’s A-Tec spiral freezer, providing the optimum product conditions for slicing.

“As the bellies are smoked laying down without stretching during hanging, our process allows us to go directly from smoking to freezing and chilling for equalization at typically 22°F to 24°F at [the] point of pressing,” Thrysoe said. “Many customers are looking to avoid pressing and deliver improved natural shape and a more appealing look in the package.”

GEA’s in-line solution benefits processors by minimizing give-away thanks to precise injection and in-line smoking. Labor savings through the marination and the smoking process requires up to seven fewer workers on the line eliminating opportunities for human errors to compromise productivity and food safety.

Provisur 3.jpgProvisur's CashinSX is one of the best-in-class components of its integrated bacon processing solution. (Source: Provisur Technologies Inc.)

Mission driven

Tim Christopherson led operations at Smithfield Foods for 22 years before joining Monogram Foods about six years ago. He is now vice president of operations at Monogram Foods and Bacon Division leader of its two bacon plants in Iowa, including a ready-to-eat facility in Harlan and a ready-to-cook operation in Denison. He quickly focused on two goals after joining the company: “Ensure Monogram offers the highest-quality bacon products to our customers and meet our mission to be ‘the growth partner that makes it better,’” he said.

To help him achieve Monogram’s bacon mission, Christopherson partnered with Chicago-based Provisur Technologies Inc.

“In my long experience with bacon, I believe the real advantage of this equipment is to clean up the ends and pieces on the line and improve the quality of the product,” Christopherson said. “That’s the ‘win-win’ for us.”

To maintain its quality while meeting the growing demand for bacon, Christopherson and his team realized how automating its processes could benefit the company in multiple areas.

“What really stands out for our team is the higher throughput and how much it has improved the jobs on the line,” Christopherson said. “We spend less time on grading and more on weight acceptance and overall quality of the bacon we send to our customers.”

Scott Scriven, executive vice president at Provisur, pointed out that labor has been a challenge for the meat industry for at least a decade, but the fallout after the pandemic made a bad situation worse, leaving processors, including bacon processors, scrambling to address the shortage. While labor has been a leading driver in the development of integrated and automated, whole-line solutions for bacon processing, another factor has been yield enhancement.

Borrowing an old, but-never-more-true adage on this topic to make the point, “The money is in the meat,” Scriven said. Other drivers fueling automation demand that he has heard from processors is their unrelenting pursuit of achieving more throughput in the same amount of floor space. Improving efficiencies in operations is still another goal among processors, because of the direct correlation to more uptime, better communication between components on the processing line and heading off situations that result in downtime.

Provisur’s philosophy when it comes to developing an end-to-end, integrated bacon processing line isn’t unlike putting together a championship sports team.

“Each component you select for your solution, you want to be looking at the best in class,” Scriven said. “For each step along the way, who delivers the best in class to do this for us.”

While many suppliers offer integrated solutions from bacon slicing to the thermoformer in the packaging area, fewer solutions include upstream processes, like imaging systems for quality, automated trimming, belly pressing and product handling.

Scriven said Provisur’s integrated technologies rely on supplier partners to maximize labor and yield while increasing throughput in a minimal footprint.

“We can’t do it on our own; we’ve chosen to partner with those we think are best in class for the intermediate steps we don’t offer,” he said.

Provisur’s whole-line solution utilizes a combination of its technology along with partners JLS Technology and Reiser.

For those single-source suppliers offering one-stop-shopping for a complete bacon processing line, Scriven said processors should ask themselves which component in the process are they willing to sacrifice to not be best in class in exchange for working with a single provider.

Provisur’s solution begins after thermal processing of bellies and integrates all the processes through case packing of the finished product. The first steps preceding draft loading utilize Provisur technology, followed by JLS Automation and lastly, Reiser.

Variance in belly sizes is a factor all bacon processors are challenged by, especially in today’s market. The prevalence of heritage breeds raised in the United States coupled with imported bellies from hogs from countries like Ireland in addition to US-raised commodity and the compliance challenges associated with Proposition 12, make sorting and trimming of incoming raw materials more critical than ever.

For retail bacon applications, Provisur’s Hoegger TrimX sets the tone for maximizing yields by making smart trimming cuts which increases the number of No. 1 quality slices while limiting the leftover debris on the line. The Hoegger X4 Press then ensures uniformity and yield of the bellies just before slicing using the CashinSX, followed by the L-board vision scanning system and onto the card dispenser where drafts are classified as No. 1 quality or downgraded. At this point the partner companies’ technology takes over, including the JLS Harrier Bacon Draft Loader, which picks up and rotates each draft and places them into a Reiser Variovac thermoformer and the packaged products are then conveyed to the JLS Osprey robotic system for case packing.

Similar processes are used for bacon not utilizing L-boards, for stack-packed bacon for example. These shorter drafts also start with the TrimX, then move to the Hoegger press and onto a scanning module. From there, two bellies are simultaneously fed into a CashinSX-550 Slicer, then to the SX-Loader, which minimizes movement and transfers of the drafts. From there the automated loader moves the drafts into the Variovac for thermoforming and finally to the JLS case packer.

Multi-segment solutions

Peter Jongen, president of Thurne, a Middleby Food Processing subsidiary based in Elgin, Ill., pointed out that his company’s technology offers solutions for all segments of bacon processing, including foodservice, retail and pre-cooked products.

“We can supply a 100% Middleby solution from pressing to packaging. These lines are fully integrated and optimized for the highest throughput and yield and fully automated,” he said. “For pre-cooked we can supply a 100% Middleby solution fully automated from pressing to packaging including automatic stacking.”

Jongen added that automation and integration technology can be applied to a wide swath of bacon processors.“Middleby has integration and automation solutions for any size and style of bacon processors; for pressing, slicing, grouping and packing this makes no difference.”

Depending on the specific bacon processing operation and the extent to which a processor is willing to implement technologies to integrate their lines, labor savings can be significant.

“The fully automated pressing, slicing, grouping and packing lines Middleby offers have reduced staffing from eight people per shift to three people per shift for a retail line and for pre-cooked from 11 to five people per shift,” Jongen said.

BAK 4.jpgBAK's system is a linear combination of integrated technologies that transform bacon from raw pork belly into a seasoned, cooked and smoked finished product. (Source: BAK)

Upstream innovations

While some whole-line solutions are focused on the steps after thermal processing, others include the many processes and technologies available leading up to thermal processing to produce ready-to-slice bellies. Those can include sorting, trimming, injecting and/or tumbling, smoking, chilling and pressing.

The solutions available from BAK Food Equipment, Burr Ridge, Ill., eliminates the tools used in traditional bacon processing, such as combs, smoke trollies and smoke sticks while averting hiccups from poor air circulation and uneven heating as well as inconsistent smoking from overlapping bellies on the tree in the smokehouse. BAK’s Automated, Spiral Smoking/Cooking/Freezing System ensures a continuous process that reduces labor, maximizes yields and optimizes bacon processing operations.

“The system features a linear combination of integrated technologies that transform bacon from raw pork belly into a perfectly seasoned, cooked, and smoked product — from start to finish,” said Tom Bako, director of business development with BAK Food Equipment. “It delivers in-line injection, optional liquid smoke drenching, drying, natural smoking and freezing of pork bellies that are ready to press and slice.”

Bako pointed out that steps to produce traditional bacon can involve many manual procedures and from start to finish can require up to 40 people to execute.

“Our automated system takes two people to fully operate,” he said.

The system has the capacity to produce 11 bellies per minute, which equates to 10,000 lbs per hour using those same two people. It also features modular options that can be customized to meet the needs of a wide variety of product types. And the solution isn’t designed to fit the needs of only large processing operations.

“We can work within existing facilities and integrate our line accordingly,” Bako said, “adding additional components as needed by the processor.”

He added: “For mid-size and smaller processors, we make it easy to operate touchscreen controls that can automate the process by controlling process temperatures, movement of product through the system, weighing, mixing ingredients programmatically, auto diagnostics/autocorrecting when process deviations occur and logging of data to ensure compliance.”