The family business of chicken

Family-owned Ingham has been in the business of processing chicken, known as the cheapest protein on the market, since 1918 when Walter Ingham opened the doors.

The company, whose legacy was handed down through his two sons, Bob and the late Jack Ingham, in 1953, currently holds approximately 30 to 40 per cent of the poultry market in Australia.

Primary chicken processing plants operate in each state, excluding the Northern Territory, with its Hoxton Park plant being the oldest and the largest one in NSW, processing approximately 250,000 chickens each week.

The single-biggest trend that the 40- year-old chicken processing plant has seen is a shift in market demand by consumers, suppliers and retailers for freshly boned birds over frozen chickens. It currently accounts for almost 95 per cent of the plant’s products whereas previously, that same percentage was made up of processed and frozen goods.

“While whole birds are still a significant part of the business, there’s a lot more of cutting up birds, boning them out and then turning them into meat or products,” Jim Edwards, product development manager at Ingham’s Hoxton Park plant, told . “That’s been a significant trend and it’s progressing further in that direction.”

According to Edwards, the reason for this movement is the increasing need for convenience. “I believe as people get busier, they want things to cook quickly, and a whole chicken tends to take at least an hour to cook, depending on the size of it.”

But the change in market demand has not jeopardised the quality of chickens.

“The company’s main priority is to maintain the quality of its products,” he said.

Ingham has been able to maintain this objective through ensuring an eight-day shelf life for its products. This gives the company enough time to transport its chickens to other places in good condition, as well as preserve a shelf life acceptable to retailers. The key to ensuring this shelf life is in controlling temperature.

“Our total process is designed so we can have that bird down to zero, which is a stable temperature, so there’s little or no growth of bacteria,” Edwards said.

A chicken’s body temperature is very similar to a person and sits at 39 degrees Celsius, he continued, and there is a need to drop its temperature to zero degrees Celsius within 12 hours of kill.

Within an hour of killing, the chickens are placed in spin chillers, a machine that uses ice water, with a temperature of approximately zero degrees Celsius, to slowly decrease the chicken’s temperature to less than 10 degrees Celsius.

“The time is dependent on the size of the bird, and our plant tends to process small birds early in the day and larger birds late in the day,” Edwards said.

“As the bird size increases, the time it takes to chill them increases slightly.”

In parts of Europe, chicken processing plants use an air-chilling method where the chickens are run passed chilled air, but it can often take a long time and it can also draw the moisture out of the chickens.

But Edwards claimed that the water- chilling method is a technique that works best for Ingham and is also commonly used by its competitors in Australia.

“There are a lot of systems and procedures in place but we’ve also spent a lot of money on equipment, as well.”

In order to keep a continuous temperature drop, the chickens are removed from the spin chillers and hung on shackles where a computer-drive system directs them to different parts of the processing plant, such as the boning or marinating areas.

“Once the chickens have arrived at the place where they’re going to be processed for the next stage, they’re either put into a cool room or they’re placed under ice,” Edwards said.

“If the birds are going to be held outside the cool room while they’re collected to be processed, which might include injection, coating or being cut, they either go straight to the cool room or have ice on top of them to continue the chilling process.”

After the necessary steps are taken to bring the chickens’ temperature down to zero, Edwards said that Ingham then has the liberty to do what it wants in order to provide its customers with options of meat cuts or flavours.

“Once we’ve controlled the temperature of the product to control the bacteria growth, then we can afford to be creative about what we do with it: flavour it, enhance it and coat it.”

This same process is carried out nationally using similar processing equipment. While there has not been an extensive upgrade at its Hoxton Park plant, Ingham has managed to double the size of its Queensland and South Australian plants.

Ingham is also currently carrying out a national review of its packaging system to keep up-to-date with the latest processing technology. It hopes to introduce the multi- vac pouch machines to its packaging lines.

“The advantage is that it’s a vacuum pack, which keeps good shelf life and presents things more nicely,” he said.

Ultimately, however, according to Edward, no machines can replace the skills of the 350 staff currently employed at the Hoxton Park plant.

“There are lots and lots of mechanical systems that we’ve used to try to drive our prices down, but it’s been our experience that no machine will do as good a job as what can be done by hand,” Edward admitted.

For example, the role of boner involves removing parts of the necessary chicken meat, such as the breast and the tenderloins. They need to ensure that each boneless piece is exactly the same size, shape and volume.

This requires several months of initial training; some of Ingham’s best boners have five to 10 years worth of experience.

“It’s been our experience that there are machines that will do the boning, but you’ll still need a whole heap of people at the end of the boning line doing bone inspections,” he said. “If that’s the case then it defeats the purpose.”



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