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4 abril 2017

Plate freezers – one of the ‘hidden secrets’ driving Australian beef’s international success

What's driven the massive investment by Australian red meat processors in large-scale plate freezing technology over the past few years?

Beef Central this week takes a look at a piece of somewhat obscure and perhaps little-appreciated processing technology which in no small way is helping consolidate Australia’s reputation as the world’s best beef exporter, based on quality, consistency and product performance.

Australia is almost unique in the use of large-scale plate freezers, accounting for an estimated 98 percent of the systems in use in the food industry worldwide

Refrigeration engineers Milmeq says it has installed 190 plate freezers in Australia, the majority used in meat processing. And there’s been a sharp rise in installations in the past three to four years, all but one of which have gone into meat processing applications. The largest units can cost up to $10 million each.

Virtually all of Australia’s top 20 red meat processors now use large-scale plate freezers in their operations. JBS, Teys, NH Foods and Thomas Foods International are all heavily committed to the technology.

A large installation was completed at Teys Beenleigh (Qld) last year; and more recent projects have gone in at Northern Cooperative Meat Co at Casino, NSW; and Linley Valley in WA. Just three weeks ago, the latest unit was commissioned at John Dee near Warwick (see yesterday’s separate article).

Sheep processing facilities have also been active, including a large installation last year at Fletcher International’s Dubbo mutton and lamb plant.

JBS Dinmore, the largest beef processing plant in the southern hemisphere, operates no less than ten of the large-scale plater freezer units, allowing the facility to freeze up to 800 tonnes of carton meat daily. The compelling performance reasons why Australian meat processors are making these investment commitments in plate freezing are set out elsewhere in this article.


Australia’s dedicated export focus

The Australian beef industry’s heavy orientation towards export is one reason why plate freezers have been adopted so widely in red meat processing in this country over the past few years.

Last year, more than 70pc of all beef produced in Australia went into export markets, and of that, almost 740,000t, or 72pc, went out in in frozen form.

In contrast, adoption of large-scale plate freezers in competing beef producing countries overseas has been remarkably low. In the US for example, about 90pc of beef is consumed domestically, and US exports tend to be in higher-end chilled product. This removes some of the need for plate freezer infrastructure. In South America, there is almost no use of plate freezers yet in beef processing, but the region is seen as a potential growth market for the technology.

One factor has clearly sparked Australia’s recent massive investment in plate freezers is processor profitability. The high margins enjoyed by processors during 2014-15 years – when slaughter cattle were cheap and abundant due to drought conditions, and international beef demand exploded with the arrival of new markets like China – has been a big driver in investment.







As
bad as conditions are currently for processors, those high-profit years
provided a ‘piggy bank’ which is now being re-invested in expensive plant
infrastructure like plate freezers, to try to stay ahead of international
export competition.







Milmeq's
Brendan Dever




Milmeq’s
Brendan Dever has been involved with plate freezing development and
installation since 1985







Business
development specialist with Milmeq, Brendan Dever, has seen a lot of changes in
processing over the past 30 years, since working on the first plater freezer
installation in 1986.







He
agrees that profitability had sparked the rush of installations seen in recent
years.







“We
saw a real drought in orders for plate freezing systems between around 2009 and
2013,” he told Beef Central during a recent interview.







That
coincided with the global financial crisis, and the lack of processor
profitability during the very wet years of 2011-12, when producers held cattle
back to build herds, forcing processors to pay higher prices for stock.







“Another
factor was the movement in the A$,” Mr Dever said. “In the years leading up to
2014, quite a lot of our processor clients told us that when the A$ went below
US85-90c in value, they would start talking again about buying plate freezers.
And that’s exactly what happened,” he said.







What
are plate freezers, and why are they so special?







As
the name suggests, plate freezers are composed of an insulated room that holds
banks of large, horizontal freezing plates positioned within a steel frame.
Liquid ammonia circulates through the movable plates, enabling them to rapidly
and efficiently cool cartons of meat by transferring heat by conduction from
the product to the evaporator. Up to 40 levels of plates, called stations,
stacked up to 20 metres high, are included in some systems.







Plate
freezers replace conventional blast freezing tunnels, which are simply
insulated coldrooms circulating fan-forced cold air.







While
smaller plate freezing systems have been in use worldwide for decades, they
were limited to freezing thin carton blocks, no deeper than 75mm, typically
used for seafood. It was the Australian-development of so-called large-scale
plate freezers that allowed typical 27kg meat cartons up to 175mm deep to be
handled, that was the catalyst for adoption in beef plants.







The
first prototype designed by Milmeq founder Klaus Visser was installed at
Tancreds Meatworks at Beaudesert in 1985, under a Federal Government-backed
project designed to deliver greater efficiencies and productivity in red meat
processing. The old CSIRO Meat Research Laboratory at Cannon Hill was also
heavily involved.







While
the original designs were small, manually-loaded setups handing only 100-200
cartons at a time, modern automatically-loaded and unloaded systems range
anywhere up to 3000 cartons in capacity. Sometimes multiple systems are
installed in the same plant. New innovations, including single-station opening,
are providing further attractions for smaller-scale plants and more efficient
use.







Weighing
up the advantages







Installation
of a modern plate freezer facility can cost more than $10 million for the
largest applications, including the insulated building itself and automated
loading and unloading. But Milmeq says it also does a lot of installations in
smaller factories in the $1-$4 million range. Total investment in the
technology may have topped $50-$80 million in the past three or four years, one
estimate suggested.







Plate
freezers may carry an eye-watering installation cost, but once in operation,
offer a host of advantages. The mains ones include:







Better
presentation:







Cartons
handled in a conventional blast freezer can distort and ‘bow’ as the product
freezes and expands. This can create problems with stacking and pallet
stability, and can compromise the total volume of beef than can be loaded into
a shipping container. Cartons frozen in a plate freezer remain absolutely
square, like bricks, because of the flat-sided plate compression from both
sides. Some processors claim they can load an additional 1.5 tonnes of
plate-frozen product into a 20-foot export container, because of better carton
shape. Equally at the other end, the product opens-up and transports much better.







Shorter
freezing cycles:







A
typical conventional airblast freezer will take 48 hours to fully-freeze a load
of 27kg meat cartons, meaning twice as much capacity is needed to freeze each
day’s kill. In contrast, much more efficient plate freezers work on a 24-hour
freezing cycle (many complete the job in 16-20 hours), meaning only half-as
much capacity is needed for each day’s kill. That, in turn, provides an
inventory saving, meaning the processor needs to ‘own’ one day’s less
production between slaughtering and market.







Energy
efficiency:







In
round numbers, a typical plate freezer installation will use about 90Kw of
electricity to freeze one tonne of meat. Compare that with even the most modern
air-blast style freezers which use about 125kW/t, and it represents an energy
saving of around 30pc.







Food
safety, meat quality:







More
rapid, even freezing produces a better quality product when thawed, and
especially in items like offals, has significant food safety implications.
Essentially, quicker cooling time means less chance for bacterial development.

Read more

Industry Events

16-19 July 2017

Foodpro

Sydney, Australia

Foodpro is an opportunity to meet with specialist suppliers and compare an extensive range of ingredients, packaging solutions, as well as food processing machinery and technology. Meet Milmeq at booth H55 to learn about our industry-leading chilling, freezing and materials handling technologies.

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