5 processing tips from Poultry 101

Poultry processing tips from the Poultry 101 workshop help maintain quality and yield of processed poultry.

If birds are heat stressed, there may be an increase in pale breast fillets at the plant.
If birds are heat stressed, there may be an increase in pale breast fillets at the plant.

1. Coping with heat stress   

Heat stress is a common problem in the Southeast where the poultry industry is largely concentrated. When birds are exposed to heat stress (typically during the summer months), they tend to eat less and drink more. Therefore, bird weights and processing yields are lower. During periods of high environmental temperatures, it is important to keep birds as cool as possible during transportation and while holding at the plant in the holding sheds.

We recommend parking one truck per stall during these periods to maintain proper air movement. Also depending on the humidity, water mists may or may not be appropriate. If humidity is high, water misters may make the situation worse because birds cannot effectively dissipate the heat.

During summer months, meat quality can also be affected. Specifically, if birds are heat stressed, you may see an increase in pale breast fillets at the plant. These need to be segregated, using visual or computerized screening, prior to packaging so that breast fillets are uniform in color in the package, or segregated prior to further processing diverting the “pale” meat away from whole muscle products so that water holding capacity is not negatively affected.

2. Ensuring tenderness  

Most consumers expect a tender product when purchasing poultry meat. In order to prevent problems with tough meat, chicken should be deboned following rigor mortis – usually 4-6 hours after slaughter. Deboning, or even vertical portioning, during rigor can significantly increase meat toughness.

In most processing plants, the process from slaughter through chilling is about 2 hours. To ensure tender meat, carcasses should be aged by storing in coolers following chilling until the next shift to allow for aging prior to deboning.

If aging is not a possibility, then other alternatives must be taken to ensure a tender product. Some processors will marinate with a salt and phosphate to increase juiciness. Our research studies have found that injection marination produces a more tender product when compared to tumble marination in meat that has not completed the 4-6 hour aging process. The needles in a multi-needle injection system help to break apart the muscle fibers providing a more tender product.

Another possible solution to decreasing toughness in early-deboned poultry meat is postmortem electrical stimulation. Electrical stimulation is applied following bleeding and causes rigor to develop faster allowing for earlier deboning without negative effects on tenderness.

Our studies have indicated that electrical stimulation followed by carcass chilling results in the same meat quality and tenderness as aging for 6 hours. Therefore, the same tenderness can be achieved with no aging following chilling allowing for a better product flow through the plant.

3. Proper marination ingredient addition   

Marination has become an increasingly popular method of further processing poultry products to improve tenderness and juiciness and even to add flavor. Most marinades contain basic ingredients such as water, salt and phosphate. However, flavors and other binding agents can be added to the basic formulation. An important consideration is ingredient addition.

Even though some marinades are a pre-mix, there are a lot of standard marinades that require mixing by an hourly worker. Training of the marination worker is important to ensure that consistent and high quality products are produced. This training should include balancing of scales, knowing what ingredients to use, how to replace ingredients if needed, how to weigh each ingredient appropriately and how to record all measurements per batch.

Once each ingredient has been properly measured, the order of ingredient addition is very important to maximize functionality. The recommended order of ingredients is: water, phosphate, salt, starches and flavors. The phosphate always precedes the salt addition since it binds more water when compared to the salt.

Once the ingredients have been added to cold water, the ingredients should be mixed using appropriate mixing apparatus until completely dissolved. It is important not to rush the process or maximum solubility may be compromised.

In order to achieve a consistent and high quality marinade, care must be taken to ensure that the above recommendations are not overlooked.

4. Know your water quality   

Maintaining product yield is a major issue in the poultry industry. Water quality can greatly impact yield of marinated products.

Water is typically an ingredient with the highest inclusion levels in marinade application and serves as a major carrier for other ingredients such as salt and phosphates. However, when containing a high mineral content (also known as hard water) used in conjunction with other ingredients such as phosphates, the metals tie up functional ingredients such as phosphates.
Typically, water hardness is determined by the amount of calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate in the water; however other minerals can also contribute to overall water hardness. Water hardness levels can range from low or soft (0-60 mg/mL), moderately hard (60-120 mg/mL), hard (120- 180 mg/mL) and very hard (> 180 mg/mL).

When hard water ties up phosphates, they are no longer able to bind water in the product. Therefore, failure to ensure proper water quality can potentially result in poor product yields and gross monetary losses for meat and poultry processors.

5. Maximize yields through marination systems   

Marinade can be added into product either by tumble marintaion or by a multi-needle injection system. Tumble marination is a batch system and requires about 20-30 minutes to complete. In order for the marinade to penetrate the meat, agitation and mechanical action are required.

One major concern with tumble marintaion systems is the amount of product to be added into the tumbler. A general rule to maximize yield in tumble marination systems is to fill the tumbler to two-thirds full. Over-filling the tumbler will cause a decrease in uniformity or marinade distribution within the product and may cause product damage. Under-filling the tumbler can also cause similar problems. So, to ensure a high-yielding product with good uniformity and product quality, do not over- or under-fill the tumbler.

Injection systems use multi-needle systems to inject marinade into the product. Technical problems with the injectors can lead to a decrease in yield and quality. Needles must be cleaned regularly, daily or even once per shift. Clogged needles will not deliver a uniform marinade into the product.

In order to adjust pick up with a multi-needle injection system, the belt speed, brine pressure, or strokes can be adjusted. Each of these will result in a different pickup.

If too slow, belt speed will cause a waste of marinade and will not improve yield. A belt speed adjusted too fast can results in damage to the meat and will results in a decrease in yield.
Brine pressure is critical to maintaining a high yield. If the brine pressure is set too high, the marinade will actually “blow out” the meat and will cause damage to the product. Yield will be decreased if this occurs since the meat system cannot hold onto the brine.

Strokes can also be adjusted and this will help determine needle patterns.

When using injection marination systems, training on these adjustments is critical to ensuring a high quality product with a high yield.

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