Poultry processing requires mix of expertise, automation

Experience and expertise are essential elements for successful use of technology and automation during poultry processing.

Digital displays will only display correct information if sensors are working properly. | Eduardo Cervantes Lopez
Digital displays will only display correct information if sensors are working properly. | Eduardo Cervantes Lopez

Without the high levels of automation and technology employed in modern broiler processing plants, it would be impossible to satisfy demand for processed chicken.

Yet, the more that technology is employed, the less equipped staff may become in resolving issues that may arise when either technology fails to perform in the way that it should or technology is expected to perform in circumstances for which it was not designed.

A couple of situations from plant visits illustrate this issue well.

Poor information, poor product

Patchy removal of the epidermis from broilers was observed in one plant.

The plant operated two sequential scalders and produced birds with the epidermis totally removed. Large control screens allowed all data from the scalders to be clearly visible.

Nevertheless, prior to starting scalding, the operator always checked that tanks were clean and that water levels and turbulence were the same in both tanks.

Checking the control panel display showed that water in the tanks was at the correct temperature.

Checks were also carried on the pluckers to verify the state of plucking fingers, and that spray nozzles and water temperature were all as they should be. Pluckers were adjusted in accordance with the average live weight of the birds to be processed.

Once birds began to come out of the final plucker, however, varying amounts of epidermis were still visible on the majority of birds, and quality controllers brought operations to a halt, as the birds would be unacceptable to the client.

At this point, a handheld thermometer was dipped into the two tanks, to check that the actual water temperature was the same as that showing on the digital display. Water in the second tank was found to be 2 C lower than what was shown on the display. This information was not, however, shared with the processing supervisor who was asked if all of the daily procedures were followed prior to starting processing.

He replied that they had been.  

I asked if the supervisor had a handheld thermometer to check the water temperature and he was surprised that this should be necessary.
So we tested the water temperature together in various parts of the tank, confirming that the temperature was two degrees lower than that shown on the digital display.

To allow processing to restart, the water temperature was increased and monitored manually. Birds started to exit the last plucker without epidermis residues.

At the end of the shift, the tanks were drained and the temperature sensors checked, and one was found to be slightly damaged, which could have happened at the end of the previous day during cleaning. Further proving the point, with both tanks drained, the temperature shown on the control panel display for the first tank dropped, for the second, however, no change was recorded.

Different input, different results

A similar situation arose at a plant where birds were found to be flapping in the bleed tunnel for no immediately obvious reason.

The problem became apparent partway though the shift, and after the contents of five trucks had been successfully slaughtered with only the briefest of wing flapping occurring in the bleed tunnel.

New trucks arrived with more birds from the same farm, but this time significant flapping was occurring in the bleed tunnel, which risked damaging carcasses.

The problem was initially thought to have been due to an employee having changed the settings for the stunner. These could well have been changed, but may not necessarily have been the cause of flapping.

As birds exited the last plucking machine, it became increasingly evident that many had full crops.

The connection was not immediately obvious to the section supervisor. However, that the birds had full crops, combined being hung by the legs, and the fact that birds do not have diaphragms, feed was returning to esophagus and eventually putting pressure on the trachea, resulting in difficulties breathing.

It was this difficulty in breathing, rather than any adjustments to the stunning bath that was causing birds to flap their wings in the bleed tunnel.

Relevant technology may well have been adjusted but, in this case, the state of the birds was markedly different to those in the batches that had come before them, meaning that the changes had been insufficient to deal with the task at hand.

To achieve the maximum benefit from employing new technology during poultry processing, managers and supervisors must develop the habit of combining the information that is delivered by that technology.

Eduardo Cervantes LĂłpez is an international consultant based in Colombia. He can be contacted at [email protected] or via 

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