Separate But Not Equal
With the flurry of new snacks and baked goods hitting the shelves, ingredient handling technology can provide front-end controls for many products, especially ones that require special treatment.
In the course of ingredient handling, the industry holds some truths to be self-evident: all products are not created equal. That’s right, not equal. All-natural snacks and baked goods are just a little bit more special than conventional ones. To produce them, the ingredients must be kept separated from the rest.
And don’t even think twice about putting mainstream items on the same level as organic ones. These certified products are governed by certain unalienable rights — and dozens of rules and regulations — that make them a class of their own.
Who said the food industry was a democracy, especially on the production floor? For large-volume producers, automating bulk, minor or micro ingredient handling can keep everything under control. However, challenges still exist when it comes to smaller operations or when using specialty ingredients.
“Organic and all-natural products carry a higher level of separation between ‘other flour’ systems,” notes Stuart Carrico, food group manager for MAC Equipment, Kansas City, Mo. “The volumes are typically smaller, as well. So except for large producers, most [companies] are hand-dumping these products rather than putting them into high-cost and completely separate equipment systems.
Minor and micro systems are all about volume and repeatability. In other words, Carrico explains, such ingredient handling systems make the most sense in operations producing the same products day in and day out.
“If your product changes, and there is a wide variation in the material making up the minor ingredients, typically, regardless of the volume, an automated minor system will not be cost effective,” he says. “If a company is making pretzels, and they make a lot of them, then a minor system can be justified.”
In some cases, market conditions — and not available technology — make it difficult to automate ingredient handling. For example, large-volume manufacturers may want to automate the handling of organic ingredients, only to find they cannot find those ingredients supplied in bulk, says Kevin Rohwer, vice president and a principal owner of Contemar Silo Systems, Inc., Concord, Ont., Canada.
A sweet goods producer, for instance, may want to install a system that can handle 2,200-lb. totes of organic sugar, but has to settle for a bag dumping station because the ingredient only comes in 100-lb. bags. For many bakers, however, a bag dumping station is a nice median between going totally automated and measuring out minor ingredients by hand. It provides process controls, but at an affordable price.
“The lesson here may be that although some bakery operations have an increased need or desire for automating the handling of secondary ingredients — and it is by no means a problems for any good system manufacturer to design systems for handling these ingredients — the suppliers of organic ingredients might not see the consumption volumes for the industry as a whole to justify providing them in bulk,” Rohwer says.
Healthy Bread Challenges
Although organic is emerging from a niche position, and consumers have pledged a new allegiance to all-natural products, both movements pale in comparison to the broader trend toward whole grain, 100% whole wheat and other variety breads. As the bread aisle shifted from white bread, Carrico says, the flurry of new products prompted many bakers to shift bulk ingredient handling from refined white flour to whole wheat.
“There has certainly been a very positive move in this direction over the last four years or so,” he notes. “Most large bakeries look at separate systems for the whole wheat to eliminate the cross-contamination potential, but utilize the existing scales and automation system as much as possible.”
The shift toward producing higher margin variety breads in recent years has prompted a variety of responses from the production floor. Bakers are trying to find the most effective way to streamline production as the number of products they make each day multiplies.
“We see everything from customers wanting to purchase entirely new existing systems for these type of bulk ingredients to customers wanting to convert a silo that they were previously using for white flour to now use for whole wheat,” Rohwer says.
He adds that conversions and add-ons generally are easier than most producers think.
“Sometimes it can be as easy as cleaning out the silo and then filling it up with whole wheat or organic flour,” Rohwer explains. “However, there can be bumps in the road when changing to these types of bulk ingredients. Depending on the ingredient, you may see a slight reduction in the transfer rate of conveying the ingredient from the silo to the scaling hopper.”
Sifting is something else to consider.
“Whole wheat flour is courser and cannot generally go through the finer sifter screens used for white flour,” Rohwer says. Typically, bakers work from the top down, automating the highest volume ingredients down to point where it makes economic sense, he explains.
Declaring Safety First
Yet another primary concern is allergens. When conveying more than one ingredient within the same transfer line, there always is the possibility of residue from the first ingredient mixing with subsequent ingredients.
“When allergens are a concern, it is important to design systems to ensure the isolation of different ingredients,” Rohwer says. Specifically, this involves designing systems with independent transfer lines and scaling hoppers to eliminate any chance of cross contamination, he adds.
With the rising cost of flour and other commodities, bakers also are looking more at technology geared toward advanced inventory control and ingredient tracking systems to control costs.
“Typically, these advanced technologies have been expensive and, hence, reserved to the very large, high-volume wholesale bakery operations,” Rohwer says. “We have seen a reduction in the cost of these types of system over the last few years, allowing more medium-sized operations to consider and implement them.”
Making technology more affordable? In the business world, that’s called democracy in action. SF&WB