At the time this article is being written there is a U.S. delegation in Russia attempting to bring about an end to a ban on U.S. poultry products chilled in chlorinated water. The outcome of this meeting will surely have an industry changing impact. The big question always comes back to what should poultry processing operations do with up to 45% of their product mix? This also brings up an important question, “Should companies be dark meat?”

Deboning the back half – beyond what occurs in whole-bird deboning operations – has become an increasing topic of discussion lately. If your operation decides to debone whole legs, there are two key factors that make or break any operation: throughput (pounds per man hour) and yield.

There are two main methods to accomplish the deboning of whole legs, the first being manually. Since most manual operations pay incentives, it is important to tie the incentives to both throughput and yield. It is also critical to design the process so individual metrics for deboners are closely monitored. The largest drawback to this method is the expense associated with the constant training required due to consistently high turnover rates.

Mechanical deboning   

There are several types of mechanical deboning equipment on the market. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The early types of mechanical thigh deboning machines pushed the thigh bones through rubber diaphragms. This type was simple enough to operate, but often broke the bones as they were pushed through the diaphragm. This caused excessive trimming and added to the risk of leaving bone pieces in the meat.

Chart: Whole leg pounds per man hour vs. Whole leg yield % 

With the newer types of equipment, whole legs can be run through a skinner before being transferred to the whole-leg deboning line. This type of whole-leg deboning equipment requires minimal labor to score and/or cut tendons before being run through the deboning modules themselves. The deboned meat is then inspected for bone pieces and trimmed to customer specifications.

Factors that drive success  

Regardless of the brand of the whole-leg deboning equipment currently on the market today, there are several factors that will drive the success of operations.

Broken hocks coming to the process must be monitored. If the broken hocks are mistakenly put through the process, they may get stuck in the deboning modules or may require excessive trimming which will raise the risk of bone making it into the finished product.

Another factor to monitor is the oyster meat left on the thigh after the skinning process. If the cut-up system producing the whole leg is not set properly, it will not leave enough muscle to hold the oyster meat to the thigh as it goes through the skinner.

More than likely, any hanging oyster meat will be lost as the whole leg goes through the various deboning modules causing an even greater loss of yield. This loss of yield will not be good for your company’s P&L statement.

No labor-free solutions   

Having said all that, don’t be fooled into thinking that mechanical deboning does not require labor. Every deboning operation will require trimmers to check for bone fragments and to trim the product to the customer specifications.

The number of trimmers required depends on the volume of product coming to them. Improving the quality of the deboned meat coming to the trim table will reduce the number of trimmers that will be required. This is why it also important to properly maintain the equipment by conducting the manufacturers required preventive maintenance and by rebuilding the modules as frequently as required.

Metrics to watch  

Even with mechanical deboning equipment, pounds per man hour and yield should be the two key metrics that drive the process. These metrics should be closely monitored in an effort to drive behavior and can be posted for employees to see. Everyone wants to know if they are doing a good job. Posting results for these operations will change behaviors and will result in higher yield and more pounds per man hour.

So, regardless of the outcome the of U.S. delegation’s visit to Russia, you have to decide whether or not the deboning of dark meat makes sense for your operation.