The global economic outlook may remain dicey, but supply and demand for diced meat and poultry products remains sharp.

Portion-control technology continues to be refined to allow processors to create diced products for myriad applications, from convenience-oriented, ready-to-cook cuts to cooked toppings for quick-service pizzas and salads. The basic technology may not be revolutionary, but today’s dicing equipment is engineered for improved capacity, sanitation, flexibility and accuracy.

As with other further processing systems, dicers have become more versatile to meet processors’ operational and product needs – many of which are often-changing and evolving. As Guenter Becker, president of TREIF USA Inc., Shelton, Conn., points out, processors have a variety of items on their wish list for dicers: “They want easy operation, highest sanitation and safety standards and a precise cut with a high output capacity. They are also looking for a multi-functional machine that offers them dicing as well as shredding or strips in a wide range of processing temperatures.”

Another slicing and dicing equipment provider who regularly fields requests from processors agrees that today’s systems reflect a move toward multi-functionality. “They want it all. Capacity is important, as is throughput and yield and a machine that is easy to maintain with low operating cost,” says Tim O’Brien, vice president of sales at Valparaiso, Ind.-based Urschel Laboratories Inc. He adds that newer slicing and dicing machines reflect the wide-ranging demands. “For some processors, multi-functionality is important, while others just want to dice 6,000 lbs. an hour.”

Achim Holz, managing director for the Holac dicing equipment line from Canton, Mass.-based Reiser, underscores the demand for smaller runs and greater variety of products. “Meat processors do not want to purchase equipment that only works on one type of product. Our customers are demanding versatile equipment that will allow them to produce a variety of different products,” says Holz, adding that processors appreciate being able change a cutting grid in a matter of minutes.

Rolling with the dice

At a time when margins can be razor thin, even seemingly small improvements in the dicing function can make a difference in consumer acceptance of a particular meat or poultry product and, in turn, processors’ operations and suppliers’ capabilities.

One recent change in dicing capability relates to appearance of the products. When it comes to diced meat and poultry, many consumers gravitate toward a more natural-looking appearance.

“People seem to want more of a hand-cut look right now. They don’t want a box of 1” x 1” x 1” cubes – many are looking for irregularity,” agrees Don Ballein, factory rep for North America for CES/Foodlogistik USA, Ontario, Calif. To that end, Ballein says today’s dicing machines can create more natural-appearing cuts, with some training and tweaks.

Likewise, Urschel’s O’Brien says there has been a move toward the portioned-by-hand appearance. “We use the term ‘uniform non-uniformity’,” he explains. “They may say they want half-inch dices but they don’t want all half-inch dices – maybe half the product that comes off the machine is half-inch size, maybe 30 percent is quarter-inch [size] and 20 percent is three-quarter-inch [size].”

The natural look is in, but in some circles, smaller dices are in demand as well. In an era of budgetary belt-tightening and continual concerns about health, a segment of the population is looking for smaller portions of proteins, which affects dicing applications.

That is especially true in the convenience market, TREIF’s Becker says. “That industry demands very small cubes, strips and shreds with the highest quality without changing the structure, texture or visual appearance. The sizes of the cubes or strips get smaller, and that means there is less meat, poultry and fish product in the package but it looks visually more,” he observes.

Meanwhile, new product development for both fresh and ready-to-eat products impacts how and to what extent larger cuts of meat and poultry are diced. Growing consumer interest in convenience-oriented products like barbecue, for instance, has led processors to utilize different dicing setups. “Some new and innovative solutions are processing shreds for pulled pork and beef,” Becker says.

Other products may not be new, in terms of their basic appearance and cut, but are gaining in popularity in today’s marketplace. Ballein, for instance, cites ethnic fare like foods popular in Latin cuisines. “Burritos and taco fillings have been a staple of the dicing business over the past several years and we are seeing the trend of commissaries starting to open in the back of stores,” he reports.

Another trend driver in dicing comes from the operation of the business, centering on sanitation and safety. At a time when companies can ill afford a recall or negative press, dicers are increasingly engineered for sanitation. “The thing that continues to be on everybody’s mind is machinery that is easy to sanitize and maintain. To me, that is the No. 1 issue. We are hearing a lot about hygienic design and rightly so because everyone is concerned about what would happen if their product is implicated in a recall. They don’t want machinery to be culpable if something were to happen,” O’Brien says.

Showcasing dicing equipment

As processors seek to better dice fresh or cooked products for their retail and foodservice customers, equipment manufacturers are improving on their systems. In addition to servicing and updating dicing systems through parts and maintenance services, many system providers are rolling out new products of their own.

For example, according to Becker, TREIF offers a gridset for pressure- sensitive products that allow for a quality dice without a loss of moisture and features a vatronic technology through its line of dicers, including the Twister and Waran series.

Urschel’s latest machine is its E TranSlicer Cutter, which was upgraded with a sanitary design that meets 21st century hygiene requirements, O’Brien says. The cutter features hinged/slicing across panels for access, along with slope surfaces for easier washdowns.

Meanwhile, CES/Foodlogistik upgraded its systems earlier this year, also with a focus on safety and hygiene. “We’ve made the machines easier to take apart and put back together and eliminated places where bacteria can build up,” explains Ballein, who notes that the improved systems are also faster and offer a larger capacity.

Even with the new advances in dicing capability, however, the lingering economic uncertainty means that many processors are looking for ways to get more out of their existing dicers. “The big processors are spending and the smaller processors are patching their systems. In many cases, that’s what’s happening,” Ballein relates.

Holz also emphasizes that the scope and type of equipment purchases and upgrades depend on various factors: “The buying cycle has been expanded as customers take more time to make buying decisions. Our customers are looking for a quick payback or return on their investment and at machines that use some form of automation so that they can reduce their labor cost.”

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