Whether moving raw products from one point to another in a speedy, safe way or handling battered-and-breaded products through secondary-processing points, belting and conveyors can be a sticking point for meat and poultry plant operators, sometimes literally.

The nature of both fresh and battered/breaded products poses distinct challenges for processors, in ensuring food safety and product integrity through the production chain.

Sanitation, for example, is top of mind among processors and among manufacturers who supply belting and conveyor systems for various applications in the protein industry. “Many things are tying into standards for safety,” reports Ed Elam, industry key account manager for Suwanee, Ga.-based belting manufacturer Habasit America.

Agrees Dana Summerour, corporate accounts manager for Harahan, La.-based Intralox LLC USA: “On the front end, processors are looking for advances with regard to food safety and sanitation.” To meet those demands, she says, Intralox focuses on improvements related to food safety, including continual innovations in its modular plastic belt offerings and its homogeneous thermoplastic flat belts with a 100 percent closed surface.

There are a variety of ways to enhance safety and sanitation. According to Elam, processors have become increasingly interested in color-coded belts, which can help manage traceability and visually identify foreign objects. “There has been a push in colors, like blue, because most foods are not blue. We’re also seeing larger companies requesting their own colors. They know if there is a foreign component, they can say, ‘That’s not our product, because we don’t use that color belt,’” he points out.

In addition to color coding, Habasit has addressed the need for improved food safety by offering belts with an antimicrobial additive, approved for direct food contact.

Meanwhile, to prevent contaminants, the company also is working on its second generation of X-ray detectable conveyor and processing belts. Summerour, for her part, reports rising interest in Intralox’s X-ray detectable acetal products.

Elam has seen similar demand among manufacturers. “Processors seem to be doing more with X-ray detectable products because there are other contaminants in addition to metal. So, they have added that extra hurdle for safety,” he says.

Sanitary design ties into the all-important speed factor, as well. At Londonderry, NH-based Wire Belt Company of America, sanitary design has become a focus for both safety and operational purposes. “If a processor has to remove belts and components for cleaning and sanitation in COP tanks, it requires the line to be down longer than it would if the processor were using a CIP belt configuration,” remarks Rick Spiak, vice president of sales and marketing. “So while sanitation is critical and extremely important to food safety, it can be a potential impediment to productivity, throughput and overall equipment utilization.”

As Spiak notes, a processor can save time by cleaning and sanitizing belts right on the processing line and get back up and running within a shorter time frame.

Elam echoes the point that sanitary design reflects concurrent demand for safety and efficiency. Accordingly, Habasit has updated its flat-top modular conveyor belt so the design features fewer hinge links and a new oblong hole for easier, faster cleaning. “Also, processors like the open frame design, with accessibility to the belt, making sure it can be easily taken off or lifted up,” he adds.

Likewise, Winchester, Va.-based Ashworth Bros., recently added a new 360-degree button-less weld, free from surface imperfections and crevices, to its popular Omni-Pro belt line for spiral systems. “It improves hygienic characteristics by eliminating the possibility of microbial entrapment. Previous belt grids utilize the traditional bridge weld design, which can trap food debris, making the belt difficult and more time consuming to clean,” explains commercial support manager Kenneth King. In addition, Ashworth offers a metal/plastic hybrid conveyor belt, the industry’s only spiral belt to be NSF certified and USDA Accepted.

Speedy and safe

Other features, too, are geared to make belts and conveyors as fast as possible while ensuring product safety and integrity. As Spiak notes, “Processors are looking to run their lines at higher rates of speed, as well as higher loading in volume and weight.”

At Wire Belt, the push for increased line speed makes proper set-up and installation critical. “If the belting is not properly threaded in the conveyor system, using the appropriate drive components and supports in the right positions, a processor could experience premature failure,” Spiak explains.

Given the economic realities of the past few years, speed ultimately relates to cost, as well. “Meat processors today are really looking more at total cost of ownership, rather than the lowest initial cost. They want durability and longevity in the product, and they are looking for higher levels of service,” Spiak says.

At Ashworth Bros. Inc., King reports that slow economic growth over the last few years has led processors to look at investing capital funds to rebuilding existing systems like spiral cookers and freezer to improve yield, quality and shelf-life. “Investment in new conveying systems such as spiral cookers and freezers seem to coincide primarily with the addition of new product lines or when a new line is needed to meet increasing product demand,” he observes, adding that instead of replacing entire belts, budget-conscious processors are more likely to replace or repair damaged sections. When they do buy new belts, they want ones that are “reliable, easily cleaned and sanitized and durable enough to convey increased product loads.”

Processors looking to rein in costs are taking a close look at water usage. At Habasit, CIP features have been enhanced to both help bolster safety and reduce water consumption. “As water becomes more expensive, we’re seeing plants move more toward CIP systems,” Elam remarks.

Processors can also optimize their total cost of ownership by improving yield. For breaded products, that means guarding against crumb loss across a range of conditions. As Summerour points out: “Breaded products can be challenging because of the delicate nature of the coating as it moves from the oven to the freezer. Proper product support and optimal transfers in these applications are paramount for ensuring that the product doesn’t get damage.”

Another recent challenge, according to Summerour, is the growing consumer clamor for gluten-free products, which require even more delicate coatings. Among other offerings for breading applications, Intralox offers lightweight, non-stick and chemically resistant Hi-Temp belting engineered for delicate breading and coatings and for improved yield in high-temperature applications, such as post-frying.

The need for conveyor and belting systems that are designed around sanitation, safety, speed and cost will continue, as processors continue to expand their operations and diversify their product offerings, including more ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat products like breaded portions that have unique properties and potential issues. “Everyone is trying to differentiate themselves and increase their margins, and so you’re seeing more ready-to-eat products being introduced,” Elam agrees.

Looking down the road, the drive toward sustainability may show up more in the belting and conveyor arena. “Some processors are looking for recycling of plastic products. I’ve had requests over the last six to 12 months on what we can do with plastic, which is something we are looking into,” Elam says.

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