The market is expanding for meat and cheese processors that offer pre-sliced portion controlled product, interleaved or wrapped with wax paper or plastic film.
With this value-added service, processors enable quick service restaurants (QSRs) and delis making fresh sandwiches to significantly speed service by eliminating the need to slice, weigh, or estimate portion size. This reduces costs by preventing employees from inadvertently putting too much meat or cheese on a sandwich, while minimizing handling and adding a sanitary barrier between portions for improved food safety.
A similar approach is also being used to provide delis with sliced ham, turkey, roast beef, or cheese in popular half pound or pound quantities for quick sale without the wait for slicing, weighing, wrapping or packaging at the counter.
Dedicated, High-Speed Interleavers
Interleavers are automated, high-speed machines designed to dispense sheets of paper or film under, between or around meat, cheese and other products for portion control, inventory control, more sanitary handling, as well as ease of separation, improved shelf life, and shielding from light in the retailer’s case. This includes wax paper and plastic film added after slicing and before final packaging.
In the production line, the interleaver operates between the slicer and the final packaging equipment, with the slicer typically capable of the highest processing rates. Although this speed imbalance is generally acceptable, there are times when a processor needs to achieve higher packing speeds to satisfy an increase in demand.
This means the interleaver or packaging equipment, whichever is slower, effectively dictates the maximum throughput speed. If these systems are older or poorly designed, they can quickly become a bottleneck. In cases like these, the options are to add more slicing lines or replace the equipment with models that run faster.
Upgrading to Offer Portion Control
With many foodservice operations tightening costs by discontinuing in-store meat slicing, often processors must assume that function. In response, Berks Packing Company, a family owned Reading, Pennsylvania based meat processor, took steps to expand its slicing and interleaving capabilities.
Previously, the company offered bulk packaging of ready to eat, sliced deli meats. However, customers started to request portion control.
“To manage their costs at the store level, our foodservice and retail customers began to ask us for portion control on the plant side,” says John Buckley, Director of Operations at Berks Packing Company.
As part of the solution, the company purchased two high-volume slicers, which gave them the ability to deliver portion-control sizes. To take advantage of this feature, though, their process line also needed an interleaver.
“We needed a fast interleaver to keep up with the slicing speed,” says Buckley. “After some research, we turned to Packaging Progressions. “Their unit was the only one that could truly handle the high speed slicing volumes we do while accommodating portion specific sizing.”
Packaging Progressions is a company that specializes in the design and manufacture of automatic, high-speed interleavers, stackers and card dispensers.
“We are able to meet the portion control needs of our customers,” says Buckley. “Those who make sandwiches can simply flip over the sliced deli meat on one piece of wax paper to make a sandwich. They know what their meat costs are going into that sandwich. We take care of the slicing and portioning, so it also saves the end user labor.”
Processors are also helping to expedite the sale of deli bulk sliced products, including meats and cheeses. Delis traditionally slice, weigh, and label their most popular products on demand, but this often leads to long lines. Doing this the previous night or in the early morning is possible, but is costly in terms of labor.
Instead, processors are assisting by pre-slicing, weighing, wrapping, and packaging popular meat and cheese products in portion controlled amounts that are immediately ready for grab n’ go purchase. The wrap is accomplished with a portion interleaver. This provides the retailer with a light shield in the grocery case. It also provides the consumer with a convenient carrier to assist in removing the portion from the package and return it. For better point of sale marketing, a rigid card can be added to the portion controlled packageso the product stands up with a better display orientation.
In the case of Berks Packing Company, however, to improve their process as business grew, the meat processor has added additional equipment over the years, according to Buckley. Now the company has three high-speed interleavers and three counter/stackers.
With the addition of ProLeaver 20300 interleavers by Packaging Progressions, the company can handle many sandwich kit portions, including extra-thin shingles, fluffed portions, and folded portions. The company is also able to maximize its slicing capabilities, feeding multiple slicing lines into one flexible system.
With a PLC design enabling easy production setup and changes, the interleavers are capable of handling products of varying shapes, sizes and formats and can operate in a single lane or up to seven lanes depending upon production requirements.
The latest interleavers have the option of being used with automatic counter/stackers for accurate, hands-free counting and stacking. This allows for final visual inspection and simple manual loading into a packaging machine. Alternatively, the stacks can be conveyed to an autoloading system to further reduce labor at the packaging machine.
“The reliability and accuracy of the equipment is critical because we cannot afford production downtime,” says Buckley. “Our customers rely on us for the right amount of interleaved portions within a package, so it is critical that it is correct.”
According to Buckley, part of what makes such reliability and accuracy possible is a number of anti misfeed features in the latest interleaving equipment.
To achieve maximum speeds and uptime, Packaging Progressions’ interleavers vary from standard industry offerings with unique features such as servo controlled product and paper synchronization; power-assisted paper unwinds; encoder enabled positioning for precise placement; debris filtering to prevent false paper feeds and reduce jams; jam detection logic to reduce paper jams; and a portion centralizer. These design improvements essentially increase the accuracy and tracking of the items and the inserted paper to achieve high speeds reliably without misfeeds.
“We are running state-of-the-art, best in class slicers, but the interleaving, transferring, and final packaging all have to be married together for reliability,” says Buckley. “If one aspect is not reliable, it can shut the whole operation down.”
Since Berks Packing Company has grown, it recently added a clean room facility to offer the highest standards in terms of food safety. “From hygienic food safety point of view, Packaging Progressions helped meet our needs and specifications,” says Buckley.
In this regard, interleavers such as the ProLeaver 20300 go beyond simply addressing the need for efficient operation. Ease of sanitary maintenance is also central to their design. For example, stand-off mounted components prevent the trapping of any product scrap, improving sanitation. Ground and polished welds further eliminate bacteria harborage points, making cleaning to a microbiological level possible.
The bottom line is that processors that offer pre-sliced, interleaved, portion controlled quantities of meat and cheese, ready for use or sale, can significantly improve their own competitiveness. This is achieved by helping QSRs and grab n’ go delis serve their customers faster, with greater customer focus, and lower preparation costs.