An Introduction to Poultry Science

Auburn University Researchers Develop Innovative Packaging Technology

By Stacie McCormick, Marketing Manager for Flexibles and Trays at ProMach

Kourtney Gardner, Associate Director at the Charles C. Miller Jr. Poultry Research and Education Center at Auburn University, places chicken breasts into a Reepack E10 Thermoformer. Image courtesy of Ossid.

The famous saying may not go “what came first, the chicken, the egg or the 4-pack of boneless, skinless chicken breasts,” but all these stages (and everything in between) are first priorities to the faculty at Auburn University’s Department of Poultry Science as they work to innovate both safety and sustainability of poultry products.

Auburn’s Poultry Science department is classified into three major pillars: production/sustainability, poultry health/wellbeing, and processing food safety/quality. To support education and research in each of these areas, Auburn University boasts one of the largest and most modern poultry research facilities in the country.

“At the Miller Center, we’re capable of incubation with a hatchery, manufacturing experimental diets with a feed mill on site, and live production facilities enable growing birds all the way through the production process,” said Dr. Bill Dozier, Department Head and Professor of Auburn’s Department of Poultry Science (https://agriculture.auburn.edu/research/poul/). “We have state-of-the-art, first stage processing, and also are able to conduct further processing, meat quality, and sensory evaluations.”

The sophisticated operation at Auburn University has attracted top researchers in the field who bring with them incredible innovation.

Associate Professor Dr. Amit Morey has recently developed a new bio-based packaging material that is fully biodegradable, using chicken biomolecules combined with all-natural additives for strength and integrity. The packaging film lays over the food product, and it continually releases an antimicrobial, so in addition to being fully biodegradable, the film works to preserve shelf life throughout coverage.

On the consumer research side, Assistant Professor Dr. Sungeun Cho, a sensory scientist, has focused some of her research on analyzing the link between labels and consumer experience.

“We use the different label factors to see how the different pieces of labeling affect the perception of the product. Also, the labeling can affect the taste. For example, if consumers see the word ‘natural’ on the packaging, they think the chicken tastes better,” she said. “Expanding my research to the packaging field will help me and give new opportunities for students to explore.”

Introducing Packaging Technology

As an institution of higher learning and innovation, Auburn is consistently looking for ways to improve upon its already stellar program. In 2019, a touring donor provided some unexpected inspiration by asking what the department was doing to research packaging, prompting faculty to consider this new opportunity.

“The beef unit on campus had already incorporated a packaging machine, so the college had some experience with the equipment. However, this was a new scene for us in the Department of Poultry Science,” said Kourtney Gardner, Associate Director at the Charles C. Miller Jr. Poultry Research and Education Center at Auburn University.

The move to securing Ossid machinery for poultry research began with Carl Christenberry, an Auburn alum and Business Development Manager for the Cryovac brand of Sealed Air. After reviewing the program’s needs with Dr. Dozier and Auburn’s Director of Advancement, Phillip Cowart, Christenberry introduced the team to another long-time connection, Ossid’s Vice President of Sales and Service, Jason Angel.

“Mentoring people and providing educational institutions the machinery, training and packaging insights for this generation of students who will carry on the torch is very important to us,” he said. “ProMach has really stepped up in recent years in supporting colleges and universities to help ensure packaging students are well prepared to keep the industry as a whole moving forward.”

Ossid provides a vast array of protein packaging solutions to the meat and poultry industries. Christenberry had worked with Ossid in the past and was familiar with their product offerings that would be particularly beneficial to Auburn’s program.

“The Reepack E10 Thermoformer was the perfect size – not too big, not too small. We felt it fit Auburn’s needs pretty well. Most of our work is geared toward roll stock materials, which run on the E10,” Christenberry said. “Auburn also expressed a lot of interest in sustainable packaging. At the last minute, Jason and I talked about a tray machine, just as another option, something else to show people a different way to package product other than roll stock. That led us to add the Reet ray 30 Tray Sealer.”

“These two machines provide four different styles of packaging,” added Angel, “You can do vacuum skin pack in modified atmosphere or ambient packaging in a preformed tray in the ReeTray 30 and vacuum skin, flex packing, and modified atmosphere packing in a two-row system with the E10.”

Benefits To Poultry Science Students

The benefits of the new equipment have already become apparent. Dr. Morey notes that offering packaging equipment has filled a void in the program to teach students about the poultry industry beyond the birds themselves.

“Until now, I was teaching poultry-first processing, but that packaging piece was majorly missing. We were not able to expose our students to that area in the food chain, which is a very important area for them to understand,” Dr. Morey said. “This equipment gives faculty the opportunity to take our students from the class, go in and operate the machines.”

All students will benefit from this exposure and become more well-rounded leaders in the poultry industry. However, this opportunity also offers the chance for some students to discover a career within poultry that they are exceedingly well suited for.

“Just hearing about packaging isn’t enough to stimulate their interest,” Dr Cho said. “Having hands-on experience with the actual packaging machine, not a simulated lab version, could change their perception of packaging and engineering and allow them to see that it’s a good career path that fits their personality and interests.”

Cowart hopes this continued development of the program will not only boost positive perceptions of packaging, but the poultry industry as a whole.

“We’re always looking for more students within the Department of Poultry Science, as we are with a lot of departments in the College of Agriculture,” he said. “That’s a battle because for so many kids, there’s a perception that the only option is to be a farmer. If this plays a little piece in educating prospective students, and those at our hands-on workshops, of all the little nuances that exist within this industry, it may prompt some students to consider going into agriculture.”

Auburn’s College of Agriculture already saw a high demand for graduating talent across various industries. This partnership with Ossid and Sealed Air provides even more connections for potential employment opportunities, along with making each student a more informed, competitive applicant.

Advanced Research Methods

“Very few Poultry Science departments are evaluating broiler production from incubation through packaging,” Dr. Dozier said, “we run the full gamut from production to consumption, which gives our students an edge and our researchers a huge advantage.”

Dr. Dozier’s keen observation is not without supporting evidence. Dr. Cho is able to mimic real life situations for her sensory evaluations of packaging using the chicken the department already has available instead of buying packaged chicken and can do more in-depth studies of shelf life. Similarly, Dr. Morey’s ability to work with an actual packaging machine that is used by potential customers for his biodegradable film can accelerate distribution, not just in the poultry market, but in any food-related field that can use this technology.

Both researchers are also excited to use Ossid machines on future projects.

“Our job from a research aspect is to take next gen technologies and make them even better for the future,” Dr. Morey said. “These machines are highly advanced and so multifaceted that they can do different kinds of packaging – it could be a vacuum pack, skin pack, modified, tray or cardboard pack, which are next gen packaging technologies coming out. This puts us in a great position with the research and implementation of these new films.”

Leveraging Assets

Another benefit Auburn’s program is seeing hits particularly close to home.

Gardner explains that the program is working toward achieving state inspection to produce consumable poultry products that could be used in campus dining facilities. The campus dining program does not have many options available for fresh or frozen meat, and the poultry science department is hoping to someday supply deboned and cut up meat to the campus dining program.

This initiative also reflects the overall mission of Auburn’s Department of Poultry Science on a more concentrated level. Ultimately, the goal of all this education and research is to provide students and faculty with the best possible facilities and equipment for their work to preserve the future viability of poultry as a food source.

“Access to these machines really adds to our research, teaching and outreach programs,” Dr. Dozier said.

Business Management

The machines may still be in their early days of operation at Auburn, but all parties involved in bringing this initiative together are excitedly looking to the future.

“When I’m talking to any company about doing something for Auburn, we’re always approaching it from a partnership standpoint. We want to create something that certainly benefits us, but hopefully provides benefits back to the donor to build something that can grow and be sustainable for a long period of time,” Cowart said. “We hope this is the beginning of a long-term relationship that gives us the ability to do more research-wise, and gives our faculty the opportunity to look in different directions with this new capability. There are opportunities for both sides to take advantage of the facilities and machines we have with the hope that it’s beneficial across the board, and in the end, for the industry.”

About the Author

Stacie McCormick is the marketing manager for flexibles and trays at ProMach (www.promachbuilt.com), a family of product brands that operate across the entire production and packaging line. She can be reached at Stacie.McCormick@promachbuilt.com. For information about the Auburn’s Department of Poultry Science, visit https://agriculture.auburn.edu/research/poul/. See the Ossid system in action at Auburn’s Department of Poultry Science: https://youtu.be/D5MTOPxNkG4?si=IpHoh8SCRIEiaX0r

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