Driven by rising concerns over contamination and labour shortages, the fresh meat industry is on the cusp of eschewing pre-made shrink bags in favour of an on-machine vacuum flow wrapping process that eliminates any product contact.

“Virtually every meat packer and processor wanting to pack fresh cuts in a vacuumed flow-wrap format still buys in pre-made shrink bags. However, we are seeing growing intent to move away from this labour-intensive and expensive approach, both on the grounds of cost and the food safety risks associated with the handling of fresh meat,” says Luca Somaini, Product Manager at ILAPAK.

Anticipating this market shift, ILAPAK has developed the world’s first fully integrated rotary vacuum packer for the protein industry. The new RotaVac system seamlessly integrates ILAPAK’s Delta 6000 flow wrapper with an innovative rotary vacuum chamber that is optimised for different products. This has created a highly efficient, hygienic and labour saving solution for packing red meat and cheese products using shrink rollstock.

“We showed a prototype of the RotaVac at IFFA 2016, to get companies thinking about the benefits of producing vacuum bags in-line from roll stock, knowing it was too early for market. Three years on, the market mood is changing amidst the issue of rising labour costs and concerns about contamination, to the point where we believe that this interest will soon translate into the first RotaVac sales,” says Somaini.

Rethinking shrink
Most meat packers and processors wanting to pack fresh cuts in a vacuumed flow-wrap format still buy in pre-made shrink bags. Besides the high cost of the bags themselves, the manually- intensive sequence of packing the meat into the bags and loading the bags into a vacuum chamber is highly inefficient and requires on average eight workers per line. The manual handling of raw meat also creates a potential contamination hotspot that companies are increasingly looking to design out of their lines.

In principle, it is preferable - from a cost, efficiency and food safety perspective - to produce bags in-line from rollstock; packs can be formed to size to accommodate specific cuts of meat, and the need to keep hundreds of different sizes of bags in stock is eliminated. Less labour is required too, as there are fewer manual steps in the packing process.

However, although the cost of labour has risen in recent years, the options for replacing expensive pre-made shrink bags with lower cost film from a reel have remained limited.

As a result, companies wanting to pack fresh cuts in a vacuumed flow wrap format had to buy three separate units - a flow wrapper, a multi-belt infeed and a vacuum system - built by three different manufacturers. The absence of any integration meant that labour saving opportunities were limited and servicing and technical back-up were problematic.

First single-source system
With the development of RotaVac, ILAPAK has become the first company to bridge this inefficiency gap with the world’s first fully integrated system engineered by a single supplier.

“Now, rather than having to worry about linking machines from different suppliers, meat firms can simply ‘plug and play’ one or all of ILAPAK’s modular Delta RotaVac pre-made bag replacement solutions via an Ethernet based control platform. That means fewer operators and simplified installation, maintenance and support,” says Somaini.

Meat cuts are fed into the Delta 6000 flow-wrapper, which incorporates a full box motion sealing head for creating exceptionally strong hermetic seals that can easily withstand a vacuum cycle. Open-ended packs are then automatically loaded into a product-specific rotary vacuum chamber.

One of the biggest advantages of this fully integrated approach is the labour savings that can be accrued. ILAPAK’s system can reduce labour by 60% versus a pre-made bag solution, as total integration dramatically reduces the need for any manual intervention.

Having fewer people handling meat cuts also has food safety benefits, as with the Delta operator the last point of human contact, bacterial count is minimised and shelf life maximised.

Hygiene is a top priority globally for meat processors and packers, and this is reflected in the sanitary design and full washdown capabilities of the open frame RotaVac. The chassis is a free draining open channel design to prevent ingress of water into the machine, and the absence of any closed channel profiles eliminates the possibility of internal bacteria growth. All critical components and assemblies are constructed from high grade stainless steel or high impacted composite plastics. 

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