Something of a boom is occurring in pre-sliced, deli-style luncheon meats, especially turkey. Growth in the quick-service-restaurant (QSR) deli business and concerns about food safety are helping to drive growth in slicing operations at poultry meat companies.

Sales of pre-sliced, deli-style luncheon meats continue to grow at a steady rate, according to Ken Rutledge, president and CEO, Dakota Provisions. Rutledge was president of West Liberty Foods when that company built its first clean-room slicing plant five years ago and has led Dakota Provisions through the start-up of its own clean-room slicing operation in the last year. He said that the remarkable number of QSR outlets that have opened over the last few years and existing QSRs that have added deli-style sandwiches to their menus are part of the reason for the growth in slicing. At the retail level, Rutledge speculated that sliced product sales have increased because of the variety of new products that are being introduced to the marketplace. He also thinks that the turkey industry is producing more high quality products, with better taste, than it did 10 years ago. All this is helping to drive sales.

Data on current sliced turkey product sales is not easily obtained. Agristats and the National Turkey Federation have conducted biannual marketplace surveys in recent years, most recently in 2005. Cooked, further-processed sales for USA turkey companies have risen substantially over the last two decades. From 1994 to 2005, the percentage of total turkey pounds sold in the USA as ready-to-eat product increased from 13 percent to 23 percent. Sliced, ready-to-eat products were added as a survey category in 2003, and sliced volume as a percentage of total industry tonnage increased from 4.32 percent in 2003 to 4.82 percent in 2005, an increase of around 12 percent.

USA turkey companies have opened three new cooking facilities in the last two years Meantime, five new slicing operations, with clean rooms, have opened in the last five years, and some existing plants have added slicing capability. Based on the industry's recent investment in new and expanded further processing facilities for cooking or slicing or both it doesn't appear that the rate of growth in cooked products sales has slowed.

Clean-room slicing boom

Because of the growth in the sales of sliced products, many poultry processors are looking at getting into slicing, according to Lee VandeWall, sales manager, Weber Slicers. VandeWall said that he cautions processors who are interested in getting into slicing. Listeria control measures have been ratcheted up several notches by processors in recent years. "This isn't something that you try and setup in a corner of your packaging room," he said. "It's about starting from scratch and adding a clean room."

The move to purpose-built, clean-room slicing operations in this country started nearly five years ago when West Liberty Foods opened its Mount Pleasant, Iowa, slicing plant in April of 2003. Two more companies opened clean-room slicing operations in 2005: Cooper Farms, Van Wert, Ohio, and Willow Brook Foods, Springfield, Mo. Dakota Provisions, Huron, S.D., began clean-room slicing in early 2007. West Liberty Foods opened its Tremonton, Utah, slicing plant towards the end of last year. Combined, these plants operate around 40 high-speed slicing lines in clean rooms.

Business continues to grow for clean-room slicing operations. Ken Rutledge, president and CEO, Dakota Provisions, said, "We started slicing about a year ago and are now operating at capacity in our slicing operation." Dakota Provisions has five slicing rooms and one oil-browning room at its Huron plant, and depending on product mix, it can produce around 500,000 pounds per week of sliced product.

Jennie-O Turkey Store expects to complete a 107,000-square-foot expansion this spring to its processing plant in Pelican Rapids, Minn. Included in this $35 million expansion will be added cooking capacity and slicing lines. Also, Cooper Farms is adding 30,000 square feet to its Van Wert plant this year to provide room for more slicing lines. Other companies in the USA with poultry operations, most notably Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Butterball, Cargill Value Added Meats, Kraft Foods and Sara Lee, also have slicing operations, but it is not known how many of these have clean-room environments for slicing.

Food safety starts with separation

Many plants that produce ready-to-eat products use the ovens as a separation point between raw and cooked operations, with ready-to-eat product packaging and handling taking place on the side of the plant after the ovens. Some processors have even modified older plants to make the separation complete by installing separate air-handling systems, drains and other utility supplies. Employees on the two sides of the plants will even have separate break and welfare facilities and are not allowed to work in the other side of the plant without changing boots, smocks and other clothing items.

Separation of the raw and cooked sides of the plant allows for better control of potential contaminants on the ready-to-eat side of the plant. Clean rooms for slicing afford another level of separation for the slicing process. When product is sliced, it is exposed to the atmosphere in the slicing room and touched and handled by various pieces of equipment and employees for a period of time. Providing a clean-room environment for slicing reduces the risk that product may pickup bacteria during the slicing process.

West Liberty Foods has built its two clean-room slice plants in such a way that the slicing plant is physically separated from the cooking plants, as has Willow Brook Foods with its Precision Slicing facility. All products to be sliced are brought into these plants by truck. There is reduced opportunity for crossover of equipment or personnel because of this separation. Many plants, like the Dakota Provisions facility, are using electronic key cards for employees to control access to the raw, cooked and slice areas to only those employees who are authorized to enter those work areas. In plants like these, maintenance employees may be allowed to go to more than one area of the plant, but only after changing outer garments and boots. Tools are not allowed to be brought from one part of the plant to another.

The extra level of protection that clean-room slicing provides has proven to be attractive to customers. Clean-room, slice-plant expansions by turkey processors have led to more bricks and mortar expansion than for any other reason since the building boom of slaughter plants in the 1980s.

Clean room characteristics

Many plants with clean rooms put each slicing line in its own room, but some have multiple slicing and packaging lines in the same room. Some of the new slice plants were constructed so that each slice line could have its own USDA plant number, though it is not believed that any processor has actually pursued individual plant numbers for their slice lines.

Slice-plant clean rooms have their own air handling systems with filtered positive-pressure ventilation. The type and level of filtration used in the air handling system varies from plant to plant. Cooper Farms employs a system at its Van Wert clean room where outside air is filtered once, refrigerated or heated, filtered a second time, brought into the ducts to supply the room and filtered a third time before it is blown into the room.

Another characteristic of slice-plant clean rooms is the reduced number of entry ways into the rooms. In most such facilities, all utilities enter the room through one pipe in the floor. These rooms are built so that the stainless-steel drain pipes can be cleaned in place each sanitation period. At some plants, the drain lines do not connect with other drains until the pipe is outside the room.

Dave Frett, plant manager West Liberty Foods, Tremonton, Utah, said, "Each slice cell (room) has a separate drain system that does not meet up with the main wastewater system until a point several yards outside of the building with a separate valve to seal off the individual room for food safety and sanitation."

Employee apparel and hygiene are important aspects of maintaining a clean-room environment. Typically, employees put on coveralls, hoods, facemasks, boots and gloves prior to entering the slicing rooms. Employees then generally walk through automatic boot washers and rinse gloved hands with alcohol before entering the slice room.

All clean-room slice operations have procedures for sanitizing and stripping off the outside casing of the logs, many do this as the logs enter the slice room or enter an anteroom of the slice room. Plants generally treat the outside surface of the log with heat, chlorinated water, or ozonated water to kill bacteria on the surface of the log and then chill the outside surface of the log to get optimal results from the slicers.

What's next?

Reclosability is the key word in packaging for retail, according to industry sources. Whether it is tubs or zip lock seals, with the smallest package size being 8 ounces, consumers want to be able to reseal the package. Marketers are always looking for a different way to present the meat in the retail package, first stacked, then shingled, then folded, and so on. Meat presentation in the package is second only to the package itself in terms of differentiating the product, according to VandeWall.

Larger logs mean fewer end pieces per pound and better yield. West Liberty Foods' Tremonton plant became the first in the industry to slice 10-foot logs, rather than the industry standard six-foot logs.

Automated handling of sliced product can mean less contact of the product with gloved human hands and that can lead to less bacterial contamination of the product. Processors and equipment companies will continue to work on machinery that will load the exposed logs onto slicers mechanically, particularly as the logs get longer and heavier.