Title:
Apparatus and Methods for Cutting Food Products into Portions
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
Processing apparatus and methods are provided for use in the division of a food product log(32) into separate portions prior to cooking of the portions. The apparatus includes a machine (2) for cutting portions from an end of the product log, a controller (34) for controlling the operation of the cutting machine, and a sensing arrangement (30) for generating a signal dependent on a cross-sectional dimension of the product at the end. The controller is arranged to determine the thickness of the next portion to be cut from the end by the cutting machine (2) with reference to the signal from the sensing arrangement and to the value of a cook-out parameter related to the proportion of the end of the product which is formed by at least one constituent of the product. The thickness is calculated with a view to the portion achieving a predetermined target weight after it has been cooked.



Inventors:
Seager, Richard David (Norfolk, GB)
Kelsey, John (Norfolk, GB)
Application Number:
12/779195
Publication Date:
11/18/2010
Filing Date:
05/13/2010
Assignee:
MAREL LTD. (Norwich, GB)
Primary Class:
Other Classes:
83/73, 99/357, 99/537
International Classes:
B26D1/00; A47J43/00; A47J44/00; B26D5/02
View Patent Images:
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Foreign References:
WO2007148041A12007-12-27
Primary Examiner:
CALVETTI, FREDERICK F
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
MARSHALL, GERSTEIN & BORUN LLP (CHICAGO, IL, US)
Claims:
1. Processing apparatus for use in the division of a food product log into separate portions prior to cooking of the portions, the apparatus including: a machine for cutting portions from an end of the product log; a controller for controlling the operation of the cutting machine; and a sensing arrangement for generating a signal dependent on a cross-sectional dimension of the product at the end, wherein the controller is arranged to determine the thickness of the next portion to be cut from the end by the cutting machine with reference to said signal and to the value of a cook-out parameter related to the proportion of the end of the product which is formed by at least one constituent of the product, with a view to the portion achieving a predetermined target weight after it has been cooked.

2. Apparatus of claim 1, wherein the at least one constituent is selected from fat, lean, bone and water.

3. Apparatus of claim 1, wherein the signal generated by the sensing arrangement comprises an area signal dependent on the cross-sectional area of the end.

4. Apparatus of claim 1, wherein the cutting machine is arranged to cut a plurality of food products into portions simultaneously.

5. Apparatus of claim 4, wherein the cutting machine has a plurality of output lanes for conveying corresponding lines of portions cut from respective food products.

6. Apparatus of claim 5, wherein the controller is operable to vary the rate at which portions from each of the plurality of products are outputted by the cutting machine independently of the rates for the other products.

7. Apparatus of claim 1, wherein the controller is arranged to take into account variation in the cooking performance associated with different lanes through a cooker downstream of the cutting machine in calculating the thickness of the next portion to be cut by adjustment of respective cook-out parameter values.

8. Apparatus of claim 1, wherein the or each cook-out parameter value is adjustable in response to user input.

9. Apparatus of claim 1, wherein the sensing arrangement comprises a detector operable to generate a content signal dependent on the proportion of the end of the product which is formed by at least one constituent of the product, and the controller is arranged to determine the value of the respective cook-out parameter with reference to the content signal.

10. Apparatus of claim 1, wherein the controller is arranged to receive a feedback signal from a weighing device downstream of a cooker, and adjust the or each cook-out parameter value with reference to the feedback signal, so as to minimize deviation from the predetermined target weight for cooked portions.

11. Apparatus of claim 1, wherein the controller is operable to generate an output signal for transmission to a cooker downstream of the cutting machine, which signal relates to at least one performance characteristic of the cooker and/or at least one characteristic of a product to be sliced or being sliced, to adjust the operation of the cooker.

12. Apparatus of claim 1, wherein the controller is arranged to receive a cooker input signal from a cooker downstream of the cutting machine, which signal relates to at least one performance characteristic of the cooker, and the controller is operable to adjust the or each cook-out parameter value with reference to the cooker input signal.

13. Apparatus of claim 11, wherein the at least one performance characteristic of the cooker is selected from: the speed of the conveyor carrying the food portions through the cooker; the power of the cooker; differences in the cooker performance with respect to different lanes through the cooker; and the positions of microwave waveguides in the cooker.

14. Apparatus of claim 12, wherein the at least one performance characteristic of the cooker is selected from: the speed of the conveyor carrying the food portions through the cooker; the power of the cooker; differences in the cooker performance with respect to different lanes through the cooker; and the positions of microwave waveguides in the cooker.

15. Apparatus of claim 1, wherein the sensing arrangement comprises at least one of: a light detection arrangement; an x-ray analysis arrangement; an MRI arrangement; and an ultrasound analysis arrangement.

16. Apparatus of claim 1, wherein the cutting machine is a slicing machine for cutting slices from the end face of a product.

17. A food processing system comprising apparatus of claim 1 in combination with a cooker.

18. A method of controlling processing apparatus to divide a food product log into separate portions prior to cooking of the portions, the apparatus including a machine for cutting portions from an end of the product log, a controller for controlling the operation of the cutting machine, and a sensing arrangement, wherein the method comprises the steps of: outputting a signal from the sensing arrangement to the controller dependent on a cross-sectional dimension of the product at the end; and determining with the controller the thickness of the next portion to be cut from the end by the cutting machine with reference to said signal and to the value of a cook-out parameter related to the proportion of the end of the product which is formed by at least one constituent of the product, with a view to the portion achieving a predetermined target weight after it has been cooked.

19. A method of claim 18 carried out using an apparatus of claim 1.

20. A method of claim 18 carried out using a food processing system of claim 17.

Description:

CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATIONS

Background of the Invention

The present invention relates to apparatus and methods for division of food products into separate portions prior to cooking thereof.

Food products are often divided into portions and the portions then grouped together and packaged for sale to consumers. For example, bacon is usually cut into slices. In some cases these portions are cooked by the food processor prior to packing.

The food product is typically cut into individual portions of a given thickness by a cutting machine. The fat in a food product liquefies during the cooking process and so a portion having a higher fat content will experience a greater weight reduction during cooking than a portion of the same initial volume but a lower fat content. Accordingly, to ensure that cooked portions are not under-weight, the cutting thickness needs to be set so as to ensure that those portions having the highest fat content still meet a minimum weight threshold after cooking. However, slices having a high lean content will exceed this minimum threshold to a significant extent, resulting in substantial “give-away” of product, that is, an excess of product in packs specifying a fixed minimum weight.

The food product to be divided up by a cutting machine is usually presented in the form of an elongated food product log. The product itself may be in a naturally-occurring form, such as a side or belly of pork or beef. These natural products have discrete areas of lean and fat, and possibly bone or other constituent tissue types.

Alternatively, products may be in a reconstituted form and comprise for example, chicken pieces packed together in a log or minced beef and so on. This relatively homogeneous material is then formed into a product log for slicing. Unlike a natural product, reconstituted products do not comprise discrete areas of material, because the constituents are inter-mingled.

BRIEF SUMMARY

The present invention provides processing apparatus for use in the division of a food product log into separate portions prior to cooking of the portions, the apparatus including:

    • a machine for cutting portions from an end of the product log;
    • a controller for controlling the operation of the cutting machine; and
    • a sensing arrangement for generating a signal dependent on a cross-sectional dimension of the product at the end,
    • wherein the controller is arranged to determine the thickness of the next portion to be cut from the end by the cutting machine with reference to said signal and to the value of a cook-out parameter related to the proportion of the end of the product which is formed by at least one constituent of the product, with a view to the portion achieving a predetermined target weight after it has been cooked.

Accordingly, by reference to the cook-out parameter, the portion thickness can be adjusted such that the weight of the portion after cooking is at or close to the desired weight.

Apparatus of the invention may also improve the uniformity of cooking of food portions. A slice with a greater fat content will differ in its crispness after cooking from a slice of the same dimensions having a higher lean content. In accordance with the invention, the apparatus may cut a product region having a higher fat content into thicker portions which will then be cooked to a similar extent as thinner, leaner slices.

The portion thickness calculations carried out by the controller therefore take into account the cross-section of the end of the product log and the value of the cook-out parameter. The cook-out parameter value is related to the proportion of the end of the product attributable to one or more, or at least two different constituents, such as fat, lean, bone and water, for example.

Different constituents may change weight to different extents during cooking, and the cook-out parameter value serves to adjust the portion size having regard to the proportion of the end of the product formed of a particular constituent (or the respective proportions associated with a number of constituents).

The sensing arrangement may generate a signal which is indicative of a cross-sectional dimension of the product at the end from which the next portion is to be cut. For example, where a reconstituted product is to be sliced and its width and cross-sectional shape are substantially constant, sensing of its height may be sufficient to enable the controller to control the slice thickness sufficiently accurately. Preferably, this signal generated by the sensing arrangement comprises an area signal which is indicative of the area of the end face.

In further embodiments, the cutting machine is arranged to cut a plurality of separate products into portions simultaneously giving a higher throughput rate. Preferably, each product is cut by a respective cutter, with the plurality of cutters operable in parallel.

The cutting machine may feed lines of food portions cut from respective food products along corresponding output lanes feeding into a common cooker. In some cases, the output from one or more lanes may be merged together to form a single lane. Alternatively, food portions cut from one food product may be fed into two or more output lanes feeding into a cooker.

The controller may be operable to vary the rate at which portions from each of a plurality of products are outputted by the cutting machine independently of the rates for other products being cut into portions at the same time. The rate of product portion throughput through an oven may affect the cooking of each individual portion and so control of this rate (by adjusting the cutting rate and/or conveying speed through the oven) may be employed to improve the cooking performance.

The controller may be arranged to take into account variation in the cooking performance associated with different lanes through a cooker in calculating the thickness of the next portion to be cut from the or each product log, by adjustment of the or each respective cook-out parameter value.

When multiple lanes pass through a cooker, there may be some variation in the overall cooking intensity for each lane. For example, the cooker may be a microwave oven in which the cooking intensity varies between the centre and sides of the oven interior. The controller may apply a different cook-out parameter in relation to each output lane of the cutting machine having regard to this variation.

In some embodiments, the or each cook-out parameter value employed by the controller is adjustable in response to user input. For example, an operator may inspect cooked portions emerging from the cooker, determine how close they are to the desired target weight and cook quality, and adjust the cook-out parameter (or the respective cook-out parameters for a plurality of lanes) so that the cooked portions are closer to the desired characteristics.

The sensing arrangement of the processing apparatus may comprise a detector operable to generate a content signal which is dependent on the proportion of the end of the product (from which the next portion is to be cut) that is formed by at least one constituent of the product. The detector may be responsive to the amount of other constituents in the end, and include corresponding signals in the content signal output. The controller is arranged to determine the value of the respective cook-out parameter with reference to the content signal. The same detector may in some cases be employed to also generate the signal dependent on a cross-sectional dimension of the end face of the product. The content signal may represent a lean-to-fat ratio, for example. It may indicate the proportion(s) of the end face which is/are formed of fat, lean, bone and/or water, for example.

The controller may be arranged to receive an input signal related to the proportion of the end of the product which is formed by a constituent of a product (or a plurality of signals related to the respective proportions associated with a number of constituents). It may then employ an algorithm to determine a cook-out parameter value based on the input signal(s). The cook-out parameter value is then used in the portion thickness calculations carried out by the controller.

The controller may be arranged to receive a feedback signal from a weighing device downstream of the cooker, and adjust its portion thickness calculations with reference to the feedback signal, so as to minimize deviation from the predetermined target weight for cooked portions. Where multiple lanes pass through the cooker, the cooked portions may be fed to a common weighing device. Alternatively, a weighing device may be provided in relation to each lane. The use of electronic feedback from a weighing device reduces the need for operator involvement in the weight monitoring procedure.

The controller may be operable to generate an output signal for transmission to a cooker downstream of the cutting machine, which signal relates to at least one performance characteristic of the cooker and/or at least one characteristic of a product to be sliced or being sliced, to adjust the operation of the cooker. This functionality provides a greater degree of control over the cooking process and the characteristics of the cooked portions.

The signal outputted from the controller to the cooker may then influence the cooker's performance. More particularly, it could concern the oven conveyor belt speed, oven power, and/or microwave oven waveguide positions, for example.

This may be particularly beneficial when handling inconsistently shaped natural products. This variation may lead to some portions being over or under-cooked. It can be addressed at extra cost by pressing the product into a consistent shape, and/or trimming the product prior to slicing. This results in undesirable give-away of the product. Instead, the controller may send an output signal to a cooker, having regard for example the dimensions and lean-to-fat ratio of a portion, which is then employed to adjust the cooker's performance and thus produce a more consistently cooked product.

The controller may store data relating to the performance of a cooker associated with the processing apparatus, such as the cooker power, and calculate the expected change in the weight of a portion during cooking having regard to this information. In some embodiments, the controller may be arranged to receive a cooker input signal from a cooker downstream of the cutting machine, which signal relates to at least one performance characteristic of the cooker, and the controller is then operable to adjust the or each cook-out parameter value with reference to the cooker input signal.

For example, the at least one performance characteristic may be selected from: the speed of the conveyor carrying the food portions through the cooker; the power of the cooker; differences in the cooker performance with respect to different lanes through the cooker; and the positions of microwave waveguides in the cooker.

The sensing arrangement may comprise at least one of: a visible and/or non-visible light detection arrangement; an x-ray analysis arrangement; an MRI arrangement; and an ultrasound analysis arrangement. The sensing arrangement may be responsive to the properties of the end portion or end face of the product from which slices are being cut during the slicing process. Thus the controller may be operable to adjust the slice thickness during slicing in response to properties detected at the end of the product as the slicer progresses through the product.

A light detection arrangement may be configured to acquire an image of the end face from which the next portion is to be cut. This image data may then be processed to determine the cross-sectional area of the end face and provide a measure of the area of one or more constituent parts visible in the end face.

An x-ray analysis arrangement may be employed to detect discrete regions of one or more constituents in a product log. It may also detect the cross-sectional area at the end of the product. In further embodiments, an x-ray analysis arrangement may scan a substantial proportion or the whole of a food product log prior to cutting to assess the content throughout and the variation in the cross-sectional area along the scanned length of the product.

The analysis described above in relation to an x-ray system may be carried out using alternative techniques such as MRI or ultrasound analysis, for example. When using such sensing techniques which are able to analyse the internal composition of a food product, it will be appreciated that the content of an end region of the product may be analysed and used to calculate a cook-out parameter value, in contrast to an arrangement detecting visible light, which is responsive to the constituent(s) visible in the end face itself.

The cutting machine may be a slicing machine for cutting slices from the end face of a food product, for example. The present apparatus may be used by a food processor to slice logs of belly bacon in the production of packs of pre-cooked bacon slices of a given weight.

The present invention further provides a method of controlling processing apparatus to divide a food product log into separate portions prior to cooking of the portions, the apparatus including a machine for cutting portions from an end of the product log, a controller for controlling the operation of the cutting machine, and a sensing arrangement, wherein the method comprises the steps of:

    • outputting a signal from the sensing arrangement to the controller dependent on a cross-sectional dimension of the product at the end; and
    • determining with the controller the thickness of the next portion to be cut from the end by the cutting machine with reference to said signal and to the value of a cook-out parameter related to the proportion of the end of the product which is formed by at least one constituent of the product, with a view to the portion achieving a predetermined target weight after it has been cooked.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

An embodiment of the invention will now be described with reference to the accompanying schematic drawings, wherein:

FIG. 1 is a plan view of a food processing system comprising processing apparatus embodying the invention in combination with a microwave oven;

FIG. 2 is an enlarged view of part of FIG. 1; and

FIG. 3 is a side view of some components of the slicing machine of FIGS. 1 and 2.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION

The system of FIGS. 1 to 3 includes a slicing machine 2 which is arranged to slice up to four logs of food product simultaneously. The logs are loaded onto four infeed beds 1. The slices are fed along a conveyor 3 in four parallel output lanes towards a microwave oven 4. The cooked food product then emerges from the downstream end of the oven and is carried along a conveyor 6 towards a packaging station (not shown).

By way of illustration four parallel streams 8 of raw bacon slices are shown partially in FIGS. 1 and 2 which are being fed into the oven. Four parallel streams 10 of cooked bacon slices are shown beyond the downstream end of the oven in FIG. 1. FIG. 2 includes a representation of an individual bacon slice 18 having substantial fat content 20, and lean content 22.

FIG. 3 shows some components of the slicing machine 2 depicted in FIGS. 1 and 2 including one of the four product infeed beds 1. A sensing arrangement 30 is able to generate a signal dependent on the area of the end face 31 of a log 32 of food product loaded into the slicing machine 2. These signals are fed into a controller 34, in the form of a programmed computer, for example, which determines the thickness of the next portion to be cut from the end face with reference to this signal and a stored cook-out parameter value, such that the portion has a predefined target weight after it has been cooked.

The cook-out parameter value may be adjustable by a user by means of a display 36 and keypad 38 of the controller 34.

The sensing arrangement 30 is also able to detect the proportion (or respective proportions) of the end of the product 32 attributable to one or more constituent parts of the product and the controller 34 calculates the cook-out parameter value having regard to this information.

When a food product includes discrete areas of different constituents, such as lean meat and fat, the sensing arrangement is operable to provide information in its output signal related to the size of one or more of these discrete areas. As noted above, this may be achieved by detection of visible and/or non-visible light emanating from the end face, or by other forms of detection. If different constituents are mixed together in the product to be sliced, the sensing arrangement may detect the proportion of the end of the product formed by one or more of these constituents.

A motor 40 is provided to rotate a blade 42. The blade may be selected from the range of known types, such as involute, planetary rotating circular, and sickle knives, for example. When a slice is cut from the end face of the product, it falls onto an output conveyor 44. The product is moved towards the blade via a motor driven track in the infeed bed 1. Alternatively, it may be urged towards the blade by a pusher or gripper which engages the end of the product opposite to the blade. The blade is rotated and the product moved past the blade under the control of controller 34 to cut each slice with a thickness calculated in the controller.

Where the slicing machine includes multiple infeed beds, it will be appreciated that the arrangement shown in FIG. 3 will be replicated for each bed, with the controller 34 controlling each bed arrangement independently of the others.