Figuring out and then meeting consumer’s expectations isn’t unlike looking for a needle in a haystack, but meat and poultry processors do often use needles to enhance their products’ palatability and yield.

Injectors equipped with needles to impart flavor and juiciness and boost yield and shelf-life are not new, but some applications and injection systems reflect today’s changing marketplace and technologies. For instance, while the injection process has long been common for chicken and turkey, the demand for tender, pre-marinated proteins has spurred greater applications in pork, beef and even seafood plants. Additionally, injection can improve the eating quality of both whole-muscle and processed foods, and both boneless and bone-in products.

The capability of injectors has evolved, agrees Juan Carlos Monge, director of research and development for Smithfield Packing Co., Smithfield, Va. “With injectors, it used to be that you had a needle, punched a marinade that came out and then you tumbled it,” he says, contrasting that with today’s systems that offer features like pressure controls, PLC controls and data tracking, among other technology-based advances. “It’s all about process control today, which reduces variability.”

Bone-in challenges
Process control can help overcome a variety of potential challenges. For example, injecting bone-in cuts can pose problems, given the attributes and irregularity of such products. “The biggest concern with bone-in products is the damage,” points out Lynn Knipe, extension processed meats specialist and associate professor of food science and technology and animal sciences at Ohio State Univ., noting the possibility of broken or damaged needles and a less-than-successful injection process. “You have to make sure you have the right needle for the process and when you inject, you can get a shadow behind the bone, so you have to inject from both sides.”

Trevor Nelson, MEPSCO division manager for Cooling and Applied Technology Inc., based in Russellville, Ark., agrees. “Bone-in applications tend to cause a few issues with injection, including pickle pockets and inconsistent injection,” he explains, adding that needle retraction and proper needle selection are vital to preventing these and others issues. Making sure the injector needle retracts when it contacts bone, and that the individual needle stops injection when it retracts to prevent pickle pockets at the bone are required to address this challenge, according to Nelson. Additionally, pneumatic needle retraction can be used to deliver a consistent, predetermined retraction pressure.

David Enders, technical sales manager for Nu-Meat Technology, Inc., South Plainfield, NJ, also points to the literal void that can occur during the injection process with bone-in proteins. “Dead zones under or around the bone always present a challenge to any injector manufacturer,” he notes. According to Enders, bone-in injecting products using atomized spray injection technology can be used to create micro drops to drive the brine deep into muscle meats.

Injecting bone-in meats improperly creates opportunities for not only needle damage, but also can compromise the structure of the products. “Bone-in applications require the injector to automatically remove pressure from the needles as soon as each needle comes into contact with bone to ensure the bone is not penetrated or fractured in any way,” explains Chris Mason, vice president of sales and marketing for Wolf-Tec, Kingston, NY. Processors need to able to vary the force applied to each needle to ensure even delicate chicken bones remain intact.

Brine delivery
Proper brine application is another issue with bone-in products, according to Smithfield’s Monge. “Sometimes when you hit bone, the bone doesn’t let the needle penetrate the way it should,” he explains, adding that Smithfield has found ways to guard against such problems. “For better, even distribution, it’s better to hit it several times with lower pressure than it is it to hit it a few times with higher pressure.”

Beyond bone-in products, other irregular pieces of meat and poultry can cause issues with injection. “With irregular shaped products, you have to get the best needle pattern and most accurate injection,” notes Dave Howard, regional sales manager for Canton, Mass.-based Reiser. He points out the value processors can realize by using technology to ensure brine only flows to injection needles that have penetrated the product, leading to more uniform injection in irregularly shaped products. “Because it only injects when the needle is in the meat, you’re not pumping brine into the air or introducing air into the return brine,” Howard says.

Food safety matters
Regardless of product size or shape, meat and poultry plant operators are taking steps to eliminate food safety hazards associated with the injection process. “The potential forE. colito be pushed into the center of the product, that is one of the bigger issues,” says OSU’s Knipe. He points out that injection equipment suppliers and processors are continually working to prevent food safety issues with greater sanitation features and other preventive measures, like rinsing products with antimicrobials before they are treated with a needle. Antimicrobial ingredients also can be injected into various meats to reduce food safety risks.

Linked to food safety, the sanitation features of injecting equipment have become a priority for many processors as well. Wolf-tec’s Mason says the designs of most injection equipment have evolved to accentuate food safety. One method of achieving this has been to optimize brine flow and line-of-sight inspection capabilities to maximize sanitation.

Engineers with Gainesville, Ga.-based Marel Stork Poultry Processing, Inc. have also focused on the dual demands for uniform product injection without compromising food safety or adding costs for unused brine. According to Bill Scarpino, an R&D representative with Marel, the company’s most recent injection equipment designs utilize a combing table and belly slide that allows processors to retain run-off brine, which is then cycling through an extensive filtration system. “We know our customers face ongoing challenges that force them to control costs at every level,” he says.

In addition, he notes, operators of today’s more technology-focused injectors are given more control of their production with the availability of real-time feedback and notification alerts that are delivered using touchscreen technology during the manufacturing process. “The touchscreen allows as little or as much control to be given to the operator and storage of product recipes for easy recipe changeover,” Scarpino explains.

Injecting new life in the category
As processors and injector equipment suppliers have found ways to address potential injection challenges through new technologies and designs, they also are able to enhance a greater variety of products by using an array of marinades.

Monge, for his part, notes that injection has been around for a long time at Smithfield with basic products like ham, but the ways in which ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook meats are injected has indeed shifted. “There are still core products using injection, but more novel products are coming around that are injected,” he says.

Suppliers also point to some subtle but definite changes in usage. “We are seeing a more diverse range of applications emerging, like new flavor profiles leading into new markets. All-natural ingredients are also growing in popularity leading many processors to cleaner labels in line with market demands,” reports Mason.

The move toward more natural meats is having another effect on the use of injection, according to Enders. “We've seen both an increase and decrease in the use of injectors. One market segment is meeting consumer demand by producing a more ‘natural’ product and has discontinued the use of injectors, going back to the ‘old-fashioned way’, while others have opened new doors, doing R&D, or actually injecting products previously not injected,” he says.

Nelson adds that some marinade ingredients like soy, carrageenan, and other solids often have a tendency to fall out of solutions and can plug needles. In these applications, he says, filtration systems can be adjusted to keep marinades constantly flowing. Still, as injection applications expand, new challenges emerge. “Ingredients have become more complex, with some removing phosphates and salts to fit what consumers demand,” Nelson says. “This has caused injector suppliers to have to deal with filtration issues due to the ingredients not going into solution as well.”

Lynn Petrak is a contributing writer based in the Chicago area.