IPPE 2023: Opportunities in sustainability

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Big Ideas took center stage here at the 2023 International Production & Processing Expo, where a varied panel tackled some of the industry’s most pressing questions.

Titled “Securing the Future of Meat: Sustainability, Innovation and the Next Big Thing,” the panel included representatives from processing, equipment and food safety, and addressed industry challenges from numerous angles.

‘People are the answer’

Al Almanza, global head of food safety and quality assurance at JBS, noted that animal protein demand is expected to double by 2050 and stressed that innovations were needed in such areas as traceability, animal welfare, training and video monitoring to meet that demand. A long-time FSIS administrator, Almanza focused on food safety, and how a processor’s food safety culture involves every employee — not only those whose responsibilities specifically involve food safety.

“People are the answer to food safety,” Almanza said.

In his remarks, Almanza mentioned the ongoing scandal involving Packers Sanitation Service Inc., the industrial cleaning service that allegedly employed at least 31 children between the ages of 13 and 17 to clean the plants of JBS and other processors. Such negative headlines, Almanza said, makes it all the more difficult to achieve ambitious goals around food safety and the like. Furthermore, he said the operators of the specific plants “should have known” that underage workers apparently were cleaning the facilities.

New trends in recycling and water

Panel speakers also addressed two specific trends in sustainability: recyclable materials and water use.

Regarding recycling, a presentation showed that 63% of meat packaging is thrown in the trash, although U.S. consumers are increasingly concerned about sustainability issues. (For instance, 56% of consumers consider a products’ “recyclability” as very important). The term “recyclable,” though, has a higher bar than most consumers realize. The panel discussed how a product can only use that term if it can be collected, sorted, reprocessed and then made available to 60% of households.

With such high standards, “greenwashing” has become a phenomenon, with companies making claims about recyclability that later can’t be supported with evidence. Because only 9% of the world’s plastics are recycled, the panel discussed the future of “advance recycling,” a system that involves cutting-edge chemical treatments and fuller recycling of materials. Making that a reality, the panel agreed, will involve every aspect of the meat supply chain working together.

The panel also included an in-depth analysis of water use and the many opportunities that are available to meat processors to make a difference in this arena.

The gallon-per-minute (GPM) consumption of meat plants, panelists said, can be enormous, with specific tasks in the plant being especially intensive. A head/tongue wash, for instance, can use between 70 and 80 GPM, while bone dust can consume 200 GPM, and pre-evisceration between 60 and 70 GPM. Sanitation, the panel admitted, is still a “dark hole,” with little data on how much water is actually used.

Despite the daunting numbers, the panel was optimistic about options for reducing water use. Through recirculation, hot water pasteurization and PAA recirculation, one meat plant reduced its GPM by nearly 120 over a five-year span; for instance, new technology allows plants to use water only on the carcass for head/tongue washing, not the entire area around the carcass.

Sanitation, the panel concluded, is the next big opportunity for reducing water consumption. Along with better tracking of how much water is used in sanitation, the panel discussed such methods as central cleaning systems, boosted pressure, belt automation and automated CIP systems, which could reduce sanitation’s footprint by 50% in water, 20% in chemicals and 25% in labor.