Air chilling freshly processed poultry carcasses continues to gain popularity in the United States. European processors have used air chilling as an option to cool fresh chicken carcasses for over 50 years, but in the United States air chilling began in the early 2000s. Before then, and still in many US facilities today, processors immerse fresh carcasses in cold, chlorinated water to chill them.
“While the industry standard in the US is water chilling, consumers are driving producers towards better quality products produced by air chilling,” said Duke Vaughn, sales manager and air chill product specialist, Baader, based in Kansas City, Kan. “Air chilled chicken tastes better, cooks nicer and contains less bacteria than water-chilled chicken. Air chilling is also environmentally friendly, saving considerable amounts of water while providing a superior product.”
The concept of air chilling has not changed over the years. It is to chill freshly eviscerated chicken carcasses with cold air rather than cold water, so innovation and development have centered mainly on mechanicals and efficiency.
“The principle of air chill has remained the same,” said Eric Nolten, vice president of sales at Ball Ground, Ga.-based Meyn America. “In the end it comes down to the fact that you need a flow of cold air to bring the bird to a certain core temperature by customer request. Improvements on the mechanical side have significantly improved chain life and brought downtime to an absolute minimum.”
“The latest trends in air chilling serve to fine-tune a technology, which has been around for quite some time now, particularly in Europe and those markets influenced by it,” said Jay Russell, key account manager, poultry, Marel with offices in Lenexa, Kan.
Processors expect air chill systems to do many things and provide many advantages. Simple solutions in which products enter the system warm and exit at the target temperature, with a good look and minimum concern over reliability is the simplest method to please customers, Nolten said.
Russell added, “It should chill effectively to the temperature required, not dry products out, protecting both taste and yield, not freeze neck flaps or wings and provide the finish their customers are looking for, and it goes without saying that it should also be super-reliable. Air chilling tunnels take up a lot of space and use a considerable amount of energy. It is vital that space and energy are used as efficiently as possible.”
The ability for poultry equipment companies to create performance and efficiency lies in the details that come from thorough communication and planning when working with customers. Processors must also consider worker safety, food safety, animal welfare and product traceability.
“Customers do not only look for the best system but also to partner with a dependable and well-established company with a good reputation for quality work,” Vaughan said.
Details such as layout and zone temperatures include many factors including bird size, scalding temperature, line speed, building dimensions and constraints, and others. Understanding these things as well as a plant’s general processes is imperative to setting up the best possible air chill system.
“We work closely with our customers to understand what their core temperature requirements are to best suit their processing needs,” Vaughan added.
Once parameters and processes have been established, details concerning the objective of reaching a core temperature while maintaining a product with a particular look must be addressed. Nolten noted maximization of heat transfer through airflow, a protective layer of water at the right time to preserve the look of the bird and uptime as three key factors in a quality air chill system.
“An air chill line is not just a cold room in which we convey birds,” Nolten said. “There is a lot of science that is going into high-capacity air chill.”
Poultry companies gain many advantages by incorporating air chilling into their processes. Because air chill systems are inline and only hung once, birds can be individually traced through the entire process. From picking to evisceration to chill to distribution to cut up or whole bird packaging, birds remain on their original shackle.
“After air chilling, automatic transfers combined with weight and vision grading can provide an easy way of tracking individual birds,” Vaughan said. “This allows the processor to control their back-end production, thus optimizing the efficiency of daily plant operations.”
For some, the switch to an air chill, or even an upgrade to an existing air chill, is primarily a financial decision. One financial advantage comes from customers’ willingness to pay more for air chilled products. Also, safety and labor factor into many companies’ decision to go with an air chill system.
“Consumers are willing to pay more for quality,” Nolten said. “A secondary advantage is the ability to remove labor from your hanging stations, since you are able to hang automatically without human intervention, and last but certainly not least is the food safety aspect. Not just thinking about cross contamination but also the ability to time exactly, and know what product went to what location since all is being transported inline.”
Consumers will pay the extra money because they to see the benefits of an air chilled poultry product. The limited use of water in air chilled products appeals to consumers, especially those interested in “better for you/better for the planet,” type products, for many reasons.
“The need to conserve water in our warming world is now well understood by a large number of consumers,” Russell said. “An additional argument against chilling in water is that in North America chemicals are added to this water to kill harmful microbes. This use of chemicals is meeting increasing consumer resistance.”
Water chilled poultry can also contain up to 12% body weight increases due to carcasses holding water from the chill, according to Russell. He added that consumers have become aware of the extra weight and don’t want to pay for it. The excess moisture also has the potential to affect flavor.
“Water chilling adds moisture to the bird, distorting the natural flavor,” Vaughan said. “Additionally, water-chilled birds carry an extra 10-15% in water weight. That water weight influences the price of the final product. Air chilled birds do not have extra water weight, giving consumers the peace-of-mind of purchasing the highest quality product.”
The biggest challenges for processors who want to install air chill or switch from water chill to air chill are space, cost and complexity. Water chillers not only take up less space but are also a more effective chilling medium than air. Once space is found, building an air chill tunnel is a major investment. In addition, air chilled products weigh less.
“Air-chilled chicken will no longer contain water, which can be sold at the same price as the meat,” Russell said. “This might seem a loss of yield. A higher price per pound for air-chilled product, however, will more than compensate.”
Vaughan said Baader will design a chill system that uses a maturation room in a multi-level chilling process. Birds enter the maturation room once they no longer drip to avoid cross-contamination. Birds in the maturation room age and equalize their core temperature without freezing. The maturation room helps reduce the footprint of a standard air chill room.
“Baader also provides remote online support of all systems to assist customers, in case there is a need for maintenance assistance,” Vaughan added.
Marel carries an extensive portfolio of technical patents and worked with Fredericksburg, Pa.-based Bell & Evans on its newest award-winning chicken processing facility, including the air chill system. Russell said Bell & Evans wanted a state-of-the-art installation that would provide the highest quality, efficient production, sustainability, reliability and high hourly capacities.
“Once a processor has decided on making the move, Marel will propose its tailor-made solution for producing top quality products at optimum production efficiency,” Russell said. “The company is well aware of the costly commitment the processor is undertaking.”
Anytime new technologies or innovations are introduced, a certain level of concern exists. Processors changing to an air chill from a water chill or new to air chill might have questions and look for peace of mind from suppliers.
“Anytime you add a different technology to our industry it brings worries to the table,” Nolten said. “Our job is to educate as much as we can and bring in knowledge to eliminate those worries. The techniques we use are easy to explain and it brings the worry level down.
“I believe it will be the next best thing coming up. How can it not? You reduce labor needs, you get a better tasting product and you offset food safety worries.”
The future of air chilling in poultry appears strong, and top suppliers of air chill systems agree.
“Air chilling will continue to grow in North America as it is commonly driven by the consumer,” Vaughan said.
Russell added, “No processing plant anywhere in the world has yet moved from air back to water chilling. The trend is always the other way. This tells you all you want to know about the future of air chilling.”