Cutting, slicing and dicing feature: A cut above
Published:  09 November, 2015

Whether a major processor or independent, butchers are having to cut meat to satisfy changing consumer demands.

Cutting, slicing and dicing is at the heart of butchery; these are the techniques used to transform a carcase into hundreds of different manageable cuts and delicious products, and a butcher’s skill in these areas will determine, at least partly, how successful he is.

Whether a carcase is being broken down in the back of a high street butcher’s shop or in a highly automated plant, preparing thousands of cases of meat each day, the way the meat is cut, sliced and diced ultimately determines whether shoppers will buy it, and then later, whether they will come back for more.

“Consumers spend less time in the kitchen than they did even 10 years ago,” points out Dick van Leeuwen, business development manager, AHDB Beef & Lamb. This means they need different cuts of meat, ones that are quick to cook. There are also huge pressures on household budgets, and in the light of the horsemeat scandal, there are problems with consumer trust.

So how well are meat businesses adapting to these challenges? And how does it affect the equipment they use, and how they cut, slice and dice their meat?

Over the past eight years AHDB has been working hard to develop new cuts to add more value to the carcase and also provide consumers with the cuts they want. A topside of beef was traditionally cut by butchers into three pieces. “Tie a piece of string around it and you have a roasting joint,” says van Leeuwen. “Now we are promoting seam butchery, cutting more muscles into steaks because of the decline in demand for traditional roasting joints.”

With a lamb leg, the seam cutting method is used to prepare mini joints of around 400g, which can be cooked in 40 minutes and means they are good for a mid-week meal. “Lots of butchers, and now multiple retailers, are selling mini joints,” says van Leeuwen. “They are performing really well.”

The steak ranges developed by AHDB are becoming mainstream too – flat iron steak, tender top, ranch and bistro steak. Not only are these more popular with consumers than joints, but they can be sold for a higher price per kilo. “It depends on what the butcher charges for it, but on average I would say there is around a 10% premium over traditional joints,” van Leeuwen says.

Thin-cut steaks are the latest new range designed to boost demand. “Normally you buy a steak and the minimum weight is 250g. I think most people would be happy with a smaller steak,” argues van Leeuwen. “In Germany, the Netherlands and France you buy steaks in 75g, 100g, 125g upwards, but the average steak is around 150g, which is much more affordable midweek and makes it accessible to a whole new consumer.”

Training courses have sprung up to help butchers take advantage of these new possibilities. One example is the Butchery Excellence Scheme, devised and run by Montgomery Food Consulting in Co Tyrone. As well as covering the business opportunities for artisan meat products, the course covers essential skills such as boning, slicing, knife skills and product development. The company offers a range of services covering food safety procedures and accreditations such as BRC and SALSA, advice on nutrition, allergens, hygiene, labelling and manufacturing procedures.

More than 100 local butchers have so far taken part. “I saw a need for such a programme because there’s an acute shortage of skilled butchers in what is one of our most important sectors,” says Montgomery Food Consulting chief executive Rhonda Montgomery. “What I set out to develop was a structured and practical programme that would create a sustainable pipeline of skilled butchers for the retail and processing sectors.”

Priorities for major meat processors are slightly different, and are focused more on producing cuts of meat as fast and efficiently as possible, but with a renewed emphasis on food safety, says David Wilson, Marel’s meat industry managing director. “In order to keep pace with retailer and consumer demand we are working with processors to streamline production methods, automate processes and add value at every stage of the meat processing chain. We aim to ensure that our equipment helps them remain competitive when responding to industry trends such as food safety and affordable pricing.”

Food safety is a significant consumer trend, and affects how cutting, slicing and dicing of meat is handled in processing plants.

“Consumers around the world have become less trusting of food processors due to recent high-profile meat scandals, such as pink slime, horse meat, out-of-date relabelling, etc,” says Wilson. Pink slime was the name given by the media to lean fine textured beef, treated with ammonia to kill pathogens, that caused a consumer outcry in early 2015 in the USA, when pictures of a pink paste at a processing plant were published, and Jamie Oliver featured it on one of his programmes as an example of what was wrong with the food industry. “This means there is currently a huge task in the meat processing industry to restore consumer confidence by adding more transparency to processing and by incorporating safety measures,” Wilson says.

Meeting consumer demand

Price and the need for value-for-money is also affecting how meat is cut. “Today, 50% of households in developed countries are single households and have a low to moderate income,” says Wilson. “As a result, new meat cuts and products such as flank steaks and several-size packs, are emerging. This makes meat eating more affordable for the consumer and the carcase more valuable to the processor.

“Convenience is crucial to the consumer. In developed countries, nearly one-third of consumers believe that 40 minutes, from start to table, is too long to wait for their meal. Nearly 70% say an hour is too long,” Wilson says in the latest Marel newsletter. “In addition to demanding easy-to-cook products, consumers also require a greater variety of food items and flavours – for example, by means of marinating.”

Industrial cutting, slicing and dicing equipment is evolving to meet these needs. Danish Crown’s Oldenburg Convenience plant in Germany produces and packages around 250 tonnes of pork and beef portions per week, including fillets, marinated meat, bratwursts, cutlets and seasoned products. It recently installed new equipment to produce coated and marinated pork and beef portions, including a Marel OptiCut, which is a volumetric portioning machine, and a ValueSpray unit, which sprays marinades directly on the freshly cut meat portions and is far more economical than traditional dipper systems, explains plant manager Claus Hubberman. “If we change marinades between production runs in a dipper system, a lot of marinade is simply lost. With the ValueSpray our overall marinade use has reduced by as much as 30%,” Hubbermann explains.

The Opticut machine has given a 2.5% to 3% increase in yield, says Hubberman. “Everything just works together,” he says. “As a supermarket supplier, we have to produce large amounts of pork to different specs at relatively short notice. Especially in the summer season, the morning’s weather forecast determines the day’s product varieties as well as volumes. This means that short-term flexibility and just-in-time production are the key to success in our business.”

One important aspect for processors when choosing machinery is flexibility to upgrade on a modular basis as production requirements change. This could be through the addition of reactive weighing or proactive scanning systems to automatically control the slicer or the addition of line automation. Weber machinery, available in the UK through Interfood Technology, offers various systems to automatically load sliced products into packaging machines. These include ‘speedloading’ systems that format and buffer sliced portions before loading directly into thermoforming packaging machines.

Robotic ‘pick & place’ systems also form a major part of many lines. A new addition is the Weber ‘smart loader’, which can be combined with the speedloaders for products that historically have been difficult to automatically load at high speeds. The 904/906 and the 905 are the largest slicers in their class and are capable of producing in excess of 250 packages a minute of retail sliced products.

Andre Clareboets, sales manager for the slicing division of Interfood Technology, highlights some of the issues that need to be considered when investing in a slicer. “Slicing is a central part of many meat processing businesses and getting the slicer right can have a significant impact on the bottom line,” he says. “By focusing on certain key areas, you can help ensure not only that the correct slicer is selected to fit a given application but also that it meets the hygiene requirements of an industry where there can be no compromise on food safety.”

Other machines are being developed, aimed at consumer demand for more natural products. Examples of this include the newly launched Bizerba A650 slicer, a fully automatic machine from its Scaleroline family of slicing machines for industrial food manufacturing. The integrated weighing technology enables different foods such as sausages, long-life goods and cheese to be sliced to meet a target weight as individual slices or in portions. Goods up to 900mm in length can be processed, so that the products need to be exchanged less frequently. The machine can be used in various locations, ensuring high productivity and flexibility and giving a quick return on investment, says the company.

The A650 is especially suitable for high product variance and naturally grown goods in industrial food manufacturing where slicing takes place for several hours a day. Virtually all types of sausage and cheese can be sliced, shingled or stacked without pre-freezing, Bizerba says. “As soon as the first slice has been made, the slice strength is readjusted so that practically no wastage occurs during set-up and operation. This works even if the ambient and product temperature cannot be exactly calibrated,” the company explains. It is also possible to develop customer-specific interfaces to meet individual requirements, such as automatic transfer of sliced goods to a packaging machine.

Suitable for catering butchers and developed with hygiene in mind is the Grasselli CSL compact slicer, available in the UK from Cutting Edge Services (CES). Minimum access is required for maintenance and access for cleaning and sanitising is tool-less. The multi-blade system gives high levels of precision and cutting quality, the firm says, and there is “extreme flexibility” from the multiple slicing sets for boneless meats starting from a minimum pitch of 3mm.

An automatic option from Grasselli is available in the form of the KSL automatic slicer. It features up to 380mm of usable cutting width with minimum slice thickness of 2.5mm and maximum product height of 100mm. It has a cutting capacity of over 2,000 kg per hour just for fresh or cooked boneless meat. It has adjustable working speeds and according to Grasselli is an extremely versatile machine with multiple slicing options and a version with two independent cutting lines is available on request. “It is a totally adjustable system that maintains control of the product from infeed, through the blades and onto the out feed. This makes it ideal for particularly delicate products.”

There is also the possibility of integration along totally automated lines. It features automated blade tensioning system and like the CSL, no tools needed to prepare for cleaning. It also has a built-in automatic lubrication system for all dynamic parts.

When it comes to hygiene, simple design protocols such as ensuring no flat surfaces where water or product debris could collect have always been a focus for machinery manufacturers concerned about hygiene, but recently the design of the machines has been taken to the next stage. Driven mainly by requirements from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) a new machine – the Weber 906 slicer - has been launched, designed very much with hygiene and visibility as the prime focus.

The concept for these machines was an open design with tool-less removal of components for cleaning. For example, all conveyors and machine assemblies – including the knife and shear edge – can be quickly and easily removed without the need for tools. The open design of the machine extends to the product bed area where the product holding modules, spindles and drive assemblies have a fully open design. In addition, the machines’ sealing systems have been improved with new door and seal designs. This also extends to the line components, such as the machine’s CCU (portioning and transfer unit), that is now fully open and can be easily removed from the machine for cleaning. These latest design principles now being employed in the larger 906 machine will be introduced to the smaller machines in the range.

With the increasing demand from consumers for thin-cut steaks, there is potential to further automate the cutting process with the use of dedicated fresh meat portioning systems.

AHDB Beef & Lamb’s thin-cut steak range was developed following research it conducted with consumers and has now introduced a dedicated campaign to demonstrate the key opportunities that thin-cut steaks provide for the retail and foodservice markets, from the snack and fast food sector to hotel and restaurant and retail quick meal options.

As was highlighted earlier, the focus of the campaign is on the butchery techniques required to create a range of beef steaks developed from cuts that are traditionally only used for stewing or other slow-cook methods.  However, Mark Bishop, joint managing director of Interfood Technology says the potential for thin-cut steaks is not confined to hand-cut methods, and automated meat portioning equipment from machinery companies such as TVI, designed to cut steaks, can produce excellently presented ‘minute’ or ‘sandwich’ steaks with high yield and minimum giveaway.

“Thin-cut steaks are increasing in popularity for a number of reasons,” says Bishop. “They offer a leaner option for increasingly health-conscious consumers, they are good value and for the busy lifestyles that are typical of modern living, they are quick to cook.”

AHDB has produced a guide to help chefs and foodservice operators maximise their profits from a range of steak cuts and provide menu inspiration. The Steak Revolution guide contains 25 inserts, focusing on cuts that fall into one of four categories – Premium, Occasion, Everyday and Thin Cuts for Convenience.
With flavour and tenderness being key factors influencing purchases in restaurants, each steak has also been graded on a five-star rating scale to assess these qualities. “Steak is a firm favourite with diners at lunch and dinnertime. This means getting the right offering for the right meal occasion is key,” says Hugh Judd, AHDB foodservice manager. “We have outlined all the information that foodservice operators may want to know, carefully selecting images and serving suggestions, flavour and tenderness ratings, cut descriptions, and a unique AHDB Beef & Lamb identification code that can be passed on to suppliers.
“We hope this information can be used by those working in the sector, from procurement managers to catering butchers and chefs, to understand just how simple it can be for them to profit from various steak cuts.”

For processors interested in producing these cuts, the TVI range features the GMS 500 single-cut and the GMS 1200 multi-cut which can portion all types of red meat.  For thin-cut beef steaks, for example, they can accommodate all types of cut, from sirloin and ribeye to silverside and thick flank. “The rump steaks are the most impressive as this is traditionally a profile from which it is particularly difficult to maximise yield,” says Richard Nethercot, product manager at Interfood and responsible for the TVI range. “We can achieve an exact thickness for the steak, well within the 5mm maximum specified for thin-cut steaks. The beef is pressed and sliced at the same time so it achieves a very consistent shape, with no gripper involved in the process to ensure higher yield,” says Nethercot. “We can achieve minimal or no trim, a real benefit in thin-cut steaks where no fat or gristle is important in meeting the healthier option that these cuts offer.” There are also a range of presentation options, including shingling, if required.

Hygiene in mind

Good standards of hygiene in cutting plants are of course crucial, both in terms of keeping within the law, and maintaining consumer trust. In August, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) issued its latest version of the Meat Industry Guide (MIG), which lays out the multiple and serious risks associated with meat processing.

“Meat for cutting may be contaminated with food poisoning bacteria, such as salmonella, E.coli O157, or by SRM, grease, dirt, metal or other foreign bodies in the slaughterhouse or during storage and transport to the cutting plant,” the guide says.  

Poor hygiene will increase the potential for contamination of food, including transfer from meat to other foods including ready-to-eat products, and increase the possibility of food poisoning. The MIG points out that the layout, design, construction, siting and size of food premises must “provide adequate working space to allow for the hygienic performance of all operations” and should “protect against the accumulation of dirt, contact with toxic materials, the shedding of particles into food and the formation of condensation or undesirable mould on surfaces”.

In addition, fixed-base operators (FBOs) must ensure that cutting plants are constructed so as to avoid contamination of meat. Cutting plants should have rooms for the separate storage of packaged and exposed meat unless stored at different times or in such a way that the packaging material and the manner of storage cannot be a source of contamination for the meat.

Cutting, slicing and dicing machinery that produces mince and mechanically separated meat should have magnets within the line, or other means of detecting contamination with metal fragments, the FSA specifies.

To control bacteria – something especially pertinent in light of the current campaign against campylobacter – the FSA guidelines say meat should be brought progressively into the workroom as needed, keeping it at a temperature of not more than 4°C for poultry, 3°C for offal and 7°C for other meat. Immediately after production, meat should be wrapped or packaged and chilled to an internal temperature of not more than 2°C, or frozen to an internal temperature of not more than -18°C, and these temperature should be maintained during storage and transport.  

Good practice is to minimise the opportunity for contamination and keep interruptions to the cold chain to a minimum by keeping meat packed and in chilled storage until it is to be worked on in the cutting room.

Cutting-edge cutting room

Mettrick’s, the Derbyshire based independent butcher and abattoir opened a new cutting room this August. According to owner John Mettrick, the cutting room consists of a main holding fridge to keep the carcases, and vacuum packing machinery. “It is certainly making life easier for the men, because it is easier to get access to the product and they are not having to move it around in vans,” says Mettrick.
The £180,000 expansion project had been planned for several years, but as Mettrick told MTJ earlier this year, it had to be put on hold due to the recession. However, once the business decided to invest, work took around six months to complete. Five new jobs have been created in the process of expanding the business, and there may be more to come.

“People are expecting pristine premises when it comes to their food and we need to offer that as a business,” says Mettrick. “It’s important to invest in a business in order for it to grow.”

Since it opened, Mettrick has received approaches from various businesses to do work for them. “Some farmer clients want us to process and cut more pigs for them and we are charging a price per kilo for that,” he says. “The same with our farm shop clients – we are breaking more beef for them and there are also caterers who are looking to grow their business with us.”

All the cutting of the carcases is done by hand, Mettrick says, but he uses basic slicers in the shops and also as a machine to shingle, display and stack bacon. “We are also looking to get a dicer in the long term, for cutting steak for pies, and we use a portioner to prepare the meat for sausages and meatballs,” he says.

The additional cutting room facilities will allow the business to further grow and develop.  “The new cutting room will allow us to widen our horizons as we will be able to gain accreditations that can open up new markets in catering and foodservice,” says Mettrick.

“We will be able to extend our kill, cut and process services to farmers through the extra capacity. At this moment in time the importance of this service to farmers is exemplified perfectly by the situation in the lamb market where prices are depressed. Rather than take a lower price for their stock they have the option of bringing it to us for processing and selling direct to the consumer.”