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With demand for beef jerky and other portable protein rich snacks outstripping conventional savoury snacks globally, Europe’s leading manufacturer and exporter of beef biltong and jerky – Meatsnacks Group – has installed three conveyor-style Fortress Phantom metal detectors featuring unique Scavenger technology.

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The meat snack segment, valued in the US last year at $2.8 billion1 has seen sales grow consistently year on year by 7%. It’s a similar picture in Europe, with analysts at Ireland-based Research and Markets predicting sales of meat snacks in Europe could reach US$4.59bn by 2025. “The demand for meat snacks in Europe is expected to increase rapidly as the market is still in its nascent stage,” the report noted2.


For Meatsnacks Group, which commands 78% of the local UK market share, the rising popularity of its premium low fat, air dried and cooked and smoked meat snacks is resulting in year-on-year double digit growth. To cope with this heightened demand, the company recently invested in three Phantom metal detectors from Fortress Technology as it was the only food inspection provider to offer a system that could filter out the signal generated by iron filings from each packet’s scavenger oxygen absorber.


Installed shortly after the merger of The Jerky Group and Cruga in August 2015, the Meatsnacks Group market brands include Wild West Jerky, Bundu, Texas Joe’s and Cruga brands. In the UK and Ireland, the company manufactures and distributes jerky products under the Men’s Health brand in partnership with US-based consumer magazine of the same name. It also makes private label jerky products under contract for a number of UK grocery retailers.


Authenticity and quality are integral across all the biltong and jerky brands, emphasises David Stephenson, engineering manager at the Meatsnacks Group, Milton Keynes production site. “Several years ago we switched from importing beef from Uruguay to sourcing high quality silverside cuts closer to home. Our beef biltong and jerky is now wholly UK produced using the very best silverside we can source.”


Extending shelf life with scavenger absorbers

Prior to installing the three conveyor-style Fortress metal detectors, the BRC-accredited food producer says their Milton Keynes operation increasingly relied on contractors to hand pack and seal packets of biltong, which proved labour intensive. “Now we have three fully automated lines, which checkweigh, fill packs, insert the scavenger and inspect for metal contaminants,” reports David. “It has given us increased capacity, with our three lines now running non-stop 11-hours a day, six days a week.”


In order to maintain the shelf life of up to 18 months and protect the products from spoilage, Meatsnacks Group insert the scavenger absorber into every packet of jerky and biltong. “We find it’s more effective than gas flushing, and it’s a less complex process for extending shelf life and limiting the growth of aerobic spoilage organisms. Scavengers, which are especially popular in the US market, also protect against loss of colour and flavour,” says David.


Scavengers are easy to insert and irreversibly absorb oxygen inside sealed packaging to less than 0.01%. However, because they contain fine powered iron filings, they present a challenge to food inspection metal detectors.


To solve this, Fortress installed its unique Scavenger software onto each Phantom metal detector. This enables Meatsnacks to simultaneously inspect for metal contaminants in addition to confirming whether


each of the thousands of packs processed daily contains an oxygen scavenger. “The only other option presented by another supplier was a metal detector with two heads. This would have been a bulkier machine and incurred higher maintenance costs,” claims David.


Meatsnacks also ruled out x-ray, partly because they are more expensive, but also due to the fact that contaminant risks are more likely to be metal. David explains: “We process tonnes of beef every week, therefore physical contaminants could range from buck shot in the meat to fragments of stainless steel from processing equipment. However, we are extremely risk aware. As testimony, every 15 minutes we stop and check our slicing machines and our Quality Assurance team runs metal test pieces though the metal detector to check the reject system is functioning properly.”


To maximise sensitivity, Fortress supplied an aperture measuring 350mm by 125mm, which accommodates both the small and larger biltong and jerky packs. “Machine set up for each product changeover is extremely straightforward,” reports David. “There’s a programme for each product and different sized pack.


“To recalibrate, our operatives simply press a button, pass a pack without the scavenger absorber in it through the metal detector, and then one with a scavenger in it. The pack with the scavenger in it provides the signal benchmark, and then anything above this calibrated signal indicates that there’s a metal contaminant and the pack would be rejected. Equally, the Fortress software can tell if there’s no scavenger absorber in a pack, enabling our operatives to remove and empty the product into the hopper for repacking, which saves on waste.”


The process for preparing beef biltong and jerky varies. Both stick to their respective South Africa and North America origins, using time-honoured processing techniques past down from generation to generation.


“Whereas jerky is a product that’s marinated, and slowly cooked and smoked to dry the meat out, beef biltong is hung and air dried,” explains David, whose father-in-law formed Cruga, starting with a simple operation making biltong in his garage. “For many centuries dried meat has been a staple, nutritious snack that could be stored for long durations without spoiling. Nowadays, its low fat, high protein content makes it a healthier alternative to traditional carb-based snacks and is particularly favoured by athletes” he adds.


With all of the UK’s major grocery chains already stockists, and Meatsnacks Group capitalising on the health and fitness markets, premium snacks and testing out vending machine options, the company looks set to beef up its market reach and retain its edge for innovation. “Having a fully automated packing and metal detection inspection line will enable us to meet European demand as our product range and the number of stockists and specialist markets we supply expands,” concludes David.