As demand for fresh poultry continues to grow among consumers, foodservice operators and retailers, processors are looking for chilling systems that improve the quality, functionality, safety and shelf-life of finished products in a way that also ensures their own efficient production.

There have been improvements across the board in poultry-chilling systems, including chilling of carcasses and chilling of further processed and portioned products.

For broilers, carcass chilling can be done via air chilling or immersion chilling in chlorinated ice water, after slaughter and evisceration. At this point, immersion chilling remains more common than air chilling to bring post-slaughter broilers back to the desired temperature, although many organic/natural companies and smaller processors promote the unique characteristics and freshness of their air chilled products.

One processor that touts its air chilling method directly to consumers is Bell & Evans, Fredericksburg, Pa. Its newer processing facility features an air-chill system that includes three different cooling chambers, with a single chilling line engineered to prevent cross-contamination from birds up on higher tracks that may drip onto lower racks. The slow air -chilling process is designed to tenderize the birds and help them retain moisture.

Processed poultry

Air chilling for further-processed poultry can be done in many ways. According to Andrew Knowles, freezer sales support manager for Sandusky, Ohio-based JBT FoodTech, mechanical air chilling, accomplished by using a spiral or impingement tunnel, offers efficiency from a cost and product perspective.

Knowles points out that contact crust freezing, especially when combined with mechanical air-chilling solutions, offers benefits associated with chilled and frozen products. “There is a large market need for both chilled, fresh poultry and frozen poultry. And while processors are targeting chilling, most processors accomplish this by establishing a small amount of frozen crust on the product surface,” he explains, adding that the light crust frozen layer helps improve quality and extend freshness, while better managing dehydration and drip loss.

Knowles also emphasizes the growing importance of versatility among processors. “They want a spiral, tunnel, or blast unit that can handle a variety of product types and sizes, such as raw breasts, raw bone-in wings, raw tenders, raw whole bird and leg quarters,” he reports. “As a result, many processors want mechanical air chilling systems that have tall product clearance, wide belts for multiple types of products being chilled simultaneously, and many of these lines are extremely high capacity.”

Meanwhile, combination chilling systems are also available in the marketplace, for both air chilling and in-line immersion methods. While some processors use such modified chilling methods, others also utilize evaporative air chilling, through which broilers are hit with a brief cold air blast followed by a mist of water.

There are liquid freezing systems, too, that can be applied to poultry, using freezants like food-grade sodium chloride solution and calcium chloride. Various poultry products, including birds and chubs of ground meat, can be chilled through liquid systems.

Meanwhile, cryogenic chilling systems used for fresh poultry incorporate cryogenic gases like liquid nitrogen or carbon dioxide (including CO2 “snow”) and come in the form of tunnel freezers, impingement freezers, spiral freezers and straight belt, immersion and rotary chillers. Cryogenic chilling systems can be used for bulk product chilling, portioned product chilling and marinated processes.

One example of a new cryogenic offering is the even-chill system for bulk-product chilling from Danbury, Conn.-based Praxair Inc., with carbon dioxide snow supplied via a PLC-controlled injection system. That system was recently tested at one of Cargill’s poultry processing facilities. “It’s improved our breast-meat temperature consistency while reducing our overall CO2 usage,” says Shane Acosta, complex generation manager, Cargill Value Added Meats, Retail. Praxair also offers a new chilling system for diced products.

Adds Frank Martin, Praxair business development manager: “We introduced the Even Chill System to allow customers to achieve a targeted, precise temperature throughout combo bins. This new automated system provides processors with an opportunity to eliminate combo bin re-work due to out-of-temperature specification product.”

There have been other advances in cryogenic chilling technology. Linde North America, New Providence, NJ, recently launched a hygienic combo chiller, with an automated chilling system that replaces manual handling and spreading of meat and CO2 pellets in bins. The chiller was designed to meet industry demand for consistent temperatures in chilling meat and poultry for packaging and shipping, according to Mark DiMaggio, head of food and beverage. “Meat and poultry processors are looking for ways to reduce labor, improve product quality, plant safety and productivity and automating combo bin-chilling is proving to be a quick way to capitalize on all those goals,” he says, adding that the system can process about 10,000-12,000 lbs. at a time, with a typical equipment payback of six to 122 months.

Customized solutions

Particularly as product lines become more varied and as capacities increase, poultry processors are seeking customized solutions. Says Knowles of JBT FoodTech: “There has always been a lot of customer/processor specific needs for IQF and fresh poultry processing, such as minimizing belt mesh marks, crust depth level, preventing ‘blow-outs’ and ‘rebound’ of raw chicken after pressing,” he says, adding that JBT FoodTech often custom tailors chiller/crust freezers or combines them with other technologies, depending on processors’ interests, needs and capabilities.

Whatever chilling method is used, it is pivotal to gauge even, accurate temperatures to assure quality and food safety, since bacteria can form in hot spots or in areas that are chilled in an uneven way.

Finally, as equipment companies develop new chilling systems, they are likely going to continue to focus not only on production efficiency, product quality and safety, but also resource efficiency. Systems that use water for immersion, for instance, will likely include some kind of conservation technologies in the future.

Lynn Petrak is a contributing editor based in the Chicago area. Petrak specializes in technology articles for Meat&Poultry.