As the NFL season comes to a climax and Super Bowl LVI approaches, the popularity and demand for chicken wings shows no signs of slowing down. The National Chicken Council estimated that Americans ate roughly 1.42 billion chicken wings on Super Bowl LV weekend in 2021, and the Super Bowl is hardly the only reason for the American public to consume chicken wings.
This American love of chicken wings should push chicken processors to seek out new and better ways to improve their chicken wing processing, quality and efficiency. It also poses certain challenges for wing processors that wing processing equipment suppliers have stepped up to address.
“Chicken wings have enjoyed steady growth over the past several decades as they’ve become established as a popular food synonymous with major sporting events like the Super Bowl,” said Stephen Chung, vice president of product management at Gainesville, Ga.-based Cantrell Gainco. “As a result, Cantrell Gainco has had to evolve its approach to processing wings as well – designing a wing segmenting system that is faster, more efficient and able to deliver the quality cuts to keep up with consumer demand.”
As with any other part of the chicken, processors strive to achieve certain standards when processing chicken wings. The focus and effort to maximize quality and yield from a species differing significantly in size and dimension remains the same regardless of the parts processed. Companies prefer machines and equipment that offer processing options to fulfill these needs. However, wings present certain challenges other parts do not.
“I believe that processing a wing is far more difficult because the bird does not use these muscles during its life span,” said Adam McCoy, national account manager at Ball Ground, Ga.-based Foodmate’s US office. “We must stretch them out to present the wing to the blades in the correct position. The size of the joints is much smaller, making the accuracy of the cuts more difficult.”
Foodmate’s US office engineering manager, Travis Martin added, “You process the whole wing or segments of the wing with blades just as you do other parts. One of the key criteria is that you must be able to size accordingly to perform an anatomical cut properly.”
Profitable wing processing requires highly accurate, high yield cuts exactly between the two joints, according to Johannes Bergsma, product manager secondary processing, Meyn Poultry Processing Solutions, Oostzaan, Netherlands.
“Additionally, the accuracy of wing cutting impacts the yield of other fields of the processing,” Bergsma added. “Cutting of the first joint has impact on the yield of breast deboning. An anatomic cut, with no remaining wing joint, improves the yield of breast deboning. This results in an increased yield in fillet harvesting.”
Processor needs for wings differ depending on their customers’ needs. A baseline consists of equipment and cut up machinery that provides efficiency, consistent accuracy and maximum yields.
“Some processors need to be able to cut wing portions with a medallion of breast meat, a requirement of some fast-food chains,” said Roy Driessen, marketing manager, Marel Poultry, with offices in Lenexa, Kan. “Others want to leave all breast meat on the breast portion. Marel can offer both options.”
Trends and technologies
The ever-increasing consumer demand for chicken wings coupled with the always present lack of labor on processing lines mean processors need to find ways to process more wings with less workers. Along with these challenges comes changes to both live chickens, processes and manufacturing’s demand for equipment to keep up with everything.
“Automatic equipment must be capable of cutting even more wings more accurately,” Driessen said. “There is also scope for improving product flows and for saving labor for inspection and packaging.”
Travis added, “Wing processing is trending in other areas of the plant besides the traditional cone lines. More customers are integrating wing processing into their cut-up lines (to save staffing) and even incorporating it into the automated breast debone processes.”
Average broiler weights continue to increase and have been for years. Flock uniformity and consumption patterns no longer follow any kind of baseline standard. All of these and other challenges have increased pressure on poultry processors to be flexible with both their input and output. Differences in birds have moved to another level in the United States and internationally.
Concept birds, or concept chickens are a trend that is growing in market share. Concept birds grow slower, are organic – sometimes heritage breeds – and are marketed with label attributes, especially in Europe. Many processors handle concept birds and standard broilers on the same day and on the same processing line.
“The difference in shape and size between both requires adjustments on the machine to achieve good results,” Bergsma said. “This can create additional challenges for poultry processors everywhere around the world.”
Meyn’s High Yield Pro Wing Cutter module adjusts itself to remove whole wings while addressing variable shapes and sizes of birds in a single setting. The dual circular knives and their stainless-steel motors are fitted within a spring coil suspension. Even while running at line speeds of 7,500 BPH (15,000 when running a double line) this wing cutter adjusts the blades to each bird individually giving the High Yield Pro the ability to process up to a 1.5 kg variance in one setting.
Labor, and the automation of it, is at the top of the list for wing cut equipment suppliers. Processors still look for new, efficient and economical ways to automate the processes of chicken cut up, and wings are no different.
“In today’s environment, between the COVID-19 pandemic, the availability of labor and the need to reduce costs, the poultry industry is constantly looking for solutions to automate labor-intensive processes,” Chung said. “This applies to wing processing as well - from automated cut up lines to the transfer and segmenting of chicken wings.”
Foodmate R&D actively works on technology and dedicates significant resources directly to wing processing. Like other suppliers, size differences play a role in Foodmate’s equipment development.
“Our customers have asked for maximum flexibility, so Foodmate is developing very flexible wing segmenting modules to handle different size variations,” said David Coburn, national account manager for Foodmate, US office.
Marel’s offering to wing cutting progress pairs its IRIS vision system installed at the front of an ACM-NT cut up system. The IRIS scans wing joints and grades them A or downgrade and sends them down one of two modules.
“Two separate product streams result, a logistical advantage as A grade wing components will usually be packed differently to downgrades,” Driessen said. “Manual inspection becomes redundant with at most one operative providing a final quality check.”