Making the link: hotdogs may have changed little over the years, but production continues to evolve

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Author: Lynn Petrak
Date: October-November 2004
Publisher: BNP Media
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,313 words

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The who, when, and where of the evolution of the hot dog makes for some interesting stories, but so, too, does the how. The changes in hot dog production over the years reflect the American spirit of enterprise and entrepreneurship, as entirely new types of businesses have grown and flourished around the manufacturing, packaging, and shipping of frankfurters.

For centuries, sausages including franks were made by hand, cut up. and stuffed into casings made from the intestines of livestock. It wasn't until 1860 or so that power choppers were developed in Germany, machines which began to show up in American meatpacking facilities shortly thereafter.

Power choppers were the main innovation for the next several years, as hot dogs continued to surge in popularity, thanks to high-visibility events like the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893, and the World's Fair in St. Louis in 1904. As with all advances during the Industrial Age of that era, however, it wasn't long before necessity became the mother of invention.

From the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century, several types of hot dog manufacturing equipment were developed, such as grinders and linkers, while casing and cooking technology also expanded and improved. The 1950s and '60s saw even more dramatic developments, as the post-war U.S. experienced great changes in the way food was produced and distributed to consumers.

Several manufacturers that supply equipment and services to hot-dog makers can trace their history back several decades, in fact. In the early 1930s, Teepak LLC, Lisle, IL, was founded in Chicago as the Transparent Packaging Company. From a small beginning, it has grown to be recognized as one of the world's largest cellulose casing suppliers to the processed food industry. In 1944, the company introduced the Wienie-Pak[R], skinless casing, a shirred cellulose casing used for the processing of hot dogs and other processed sausages that represented a major shift from the previous use of animal-based natural casings. A few years later, Teepak enhanced its product line with tinted casing (water soluable dye) designed to transfer colors like red and orange tint to the product during processing. In 1952, Teepak founded the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council for the promotion of hot dogs and sausages produced in cellulose casings. In the 1950s, as companies like Oscar Mayer, Hydgrade, and others began to expand their retail business, and as foodservice outlets began steaming up more frankfurters to on-the-move Americans, other innovations appeared. The handtmann Company, which began 80 years before as a brewing equipment company, got in the meat business around 1954, starting its legacy of filling, portioning, and linking equipment.

"When the meat machinery division was formed, the first product was a portable sausage linker for all linked products with any type casing," notes Steve Tennis, president of handtmann Inc. in Buffalo Grove, IL, adding that other enhancements in frankfurter production followed, such as the launch of automatic linkers and peelers.

Indeed, the 1960s, a time of rapid-fire changes within the United States, was a notable period in the history of hot dog production. In 1962, Ray Townsend, owner of a mechanical skinning machinery company in Des Moines, IA, took note of a need in the marketplace. "During a plant visit that Mr. Townsend and a couple of other people made in Ottumwa, they saw the traditional method of making hot dogs and thought they could do it all in one operation. According to the story, they had it figured out in their heads on the drive back to Des Moines," recounts Steve Cate, vice president of product development for Townsend Engineering, which now offers sausage linking equipment, skinning and trimming equipment, meat harvesting equipment, and curing and marinating equipment, among other machinery.

That brainstorm, scribbled down on a napkin by Townsend during the journey back from the Ottumwa packing plant, led to the development of the Townsend Frank-a-Matic[R], the first machine ever to automatically stuff, link, and hang sausages all in one continuous operation. The machine eliminated the need for three different workers to pump, hand link, and hang hot dogs in a smokehouse. It also resulted in a more uniform and consistent product.

The Frank-a-Matic was revolutionary in its design atthe time, and as such, garnered much attention from processors. "Up until that point our business had always been skinning. Within a few years of the Frank-a-Matic, we probably had ninety percent of the world's production," notes Cate.

Bob Damstetter, Townsend's vice president of sales and marketing, says the Frank-a-Matic was the right equipment for the right time, as demand for hot dogs and advancing technology converged.

"As you made the production of hot dogs more efficient and drove the cost out, it became more available to people," he points out, adding that not even Ray Townsend predicted the reliability of his invention. "He believed when he came up with it that it would have a five-year life cycle. Some forty years hence, the Frank-a-Matic, in terms of what it does, principally hasn't changed much."

Three years after the rollout of the first Frank a-Matic, Townsend developed a semiautomatic machine geared toward smaller regional processors. And it wasn't long after its introduction that Teepak (Transparent Packaging Company had changed its name in 1955) began supplying the first Wienie-Pak casings that were suitable for the equipment. Around that time, casings changed in other ways as well.

"Stuffing equipment, from hand stuffing to automatic, created a need for shirred strand length enhancement from thirty-two feet to the current one-hundred-and-sixty feet with a maximum strand length of twenty inches, and the need for internally applied solutions for easier peeling were required," Robert Backus, director of marketing/Wienie-Pak, Teepak LLC, points out. Due to processing growth in the United States and globally and industry innovations, Teepak continued to provide product innovations such as spin shirr, longer strand lengths to meet processing needs, and expansion into growing European markets.

Cooking processes, too, underwent some major changes in the 1960s. Lodi, WI-based Alkar Inc., for example, helped transform the smokehouse side of hot dog production.

"There was a dramatic change in relation to hot dogs around 1968, when batch processing changed to continuous processing. That was the first Alkar tunnel, called the In-Line, that was installed in Trenton, MO," recalls David Wildes, director of marketing for AIkar. "That style of production quickly became the standard of the way one processed skinless or cellulose casing hot dogs." Along the way, Wildes notes, the new cooking capability also helped lower the cost per pound due to improved efficiency and consistency. Also, like the invention of the Frank-a-Matic, continuous processing enabled processors to produce high volumes very efficiently and market them nationally.

Mass-market evolution

The concurrent advancements at that time, from advanced peelers to continuous cook/chill systems, were reflective of the demand for as well as the capability to produce frankfurters to a hungry public. "It was all about making hot dog production go from specialty processing to the mass market. Anyone who was trying to compete in the national supermarket chains had to adopt continuous processing," Wildes observes.

The ensuing decades didn't see too many watershed changes, however. Hot dog equipment was refined a bit more during the 1970s and early '80s, as the demand for skinless production grew. Suppliers designed their machines larger and faster to keep up with processor demand for increased output and efficiency.

Townsend was among those suppliers making modifications and upgrades to existing machinery. In 1988, the company unveiled its first variable-speed machine, designed to vary the output of a pump.

"We went to variable speeds on the pump so you could squeeze more speed out of it and vary the amount of twists you could put on it infinitely. The previous way was very limiting," explains Cate.

The Townsend NL Linker replaced the Frank-a-Matic in the mid 1990s and ushered in the next significant period of evolution in the production of hot dogs, which to some extent is still in progress. In 1999, Alkar and Townsend joined together to develop a new continuous processing system called the J-Con, which eliminated labor through a stickless oven-loading system that also allowed for unlimited casing length, among other features.

"The Townsend NL Linker was married to the Alkar continuous cooking system. It became one connected system, which increased automation and improved consistency," explains Wildes.

Another marriage that produced innovation was the collaboration between Alkar and its sister company, packaging supplier RapidPak Inc.

A few years ago, the divisions pooled their efforts and designs to help processors with both cooking and packaging.

"We were on either side of production--upstream in cooking and downstream in packaging," notes Wildes. "Now, we've been able to match increased volumes through the cooking system with the development of high-speed packaging systems, working closely with loaders as they keep up with production."

The past few years have also been marked by an improvement in linker technology. Handtmann updated its capabilities three years ago, with the introduction of the company's AL242 high-speed linker, which was designed to fit into more advanced continuous production lines.

"It differentiates itself from other high-speed linkers with the ability to change link lengths and diameters electronically rather than mechanically. Also, the AL242 uses the proven handtmann vane cell metering pump for portion accuracy," relates Tennis.

Casings, too, have been improved in recent years. Today, Teepak offers other innovative products such as Fibrous Smok-E and Caramelcasing, the T-Sizer II Stuffing Equipment, and Wienie-Pak longer lengths aid food processors throughout the world.

"This conscientious effort to offer the widest variety of cellulose food packaging accompanied by outstanding technical support and services has continued to make Teepak LLC a world-class company," says Backus, adding that Teekpak serves customers in more than 70 countries.

Meanwhile, in addition to working on the J-Con system with Alkar, Townsend has been busy on the R&D front on other advances, focusing on what company leaders believe is another major development in the history of hot dog production.

Some of the latest changes in Townsend's capabilities began in 2001, when it acquired a company in the Netherlands called Protecon-Langen. Both suppliers at the time were independently marketing and developing coextrusion technologies, which essentially allowed for completely automated systems that made their own casing.

"Instead of stuffing a prefabricated casing, we actually made the casing as we extruded the meat batter," explains Jos Kobussen, sales manager for Townsend, adding that machinery capability for coextrusion was not yet effective three years ago. After its partnership with Protecon, though, Townsend began to perfect coextrusion technology, which it dubbed the QX[R] (for quality coextrusion) System for all types of sausages, including hot dogs.

Kobussen says coextrusion represents the next generation of hot dog manufacturing. "Coextrusion is fully automated and has the lowest labor requirements of any technology out there," he says, adding that the quality and "bite" of a hot dog is great with this type of system.

The QX Hot Dog System, beyond eliminating labor and time, also offers food-safety features that are appealing to processors, notes Kobussen. "With QX technology we can do the last part of the cooking inside the package, which you can't do with skinless casing technology," he explains. "We coagulate enough proteins in the cooking process so we can automatically package it in a vacuum pack, which then travels through a hot-water bath where it is fully cooked and any inadvertently enclosed microbes are killed. With this process, a sausage-maker knows for sure that when his product leaves the plant, it is safe."

Damstetter states that the multifunctional benefits of the QX, which will be put into hot dog production next year and which has already drawn interest from several frankfurter manufacturers, are revolutionary. "Since the invention of the Frank-a-Matic, this is the biggest thing that will happen to the hot dog," he says.

Although the QX system could conceivably eat into Townsend's own linking equipment business, the company will continue to offer both kinds of equipment to hot-dog makers, which span both major national processors as well as a number of strong-performing but smaller, regional manufacturers.

"On the one hand, coextrusion can make a real high-quality product right now, but there will still be a market for linkers. And on that side of things, we always have an intense effort at continuously improving our linker line," reports Cate.

The latest advances

The new frontier of producing the basic and beloved frankfurter is opening up in other ways as well. Alkar/RapidPak, for example, is pursuing the latest advances in food safety, says Wildes. "The next generation is pasteurizing hot dogs directly in the packaging machine, which is just about to be installed in a leading hot dog plant," he says of the company's new flash-pasteurization technology.

That technology uses a simple but effective process. "A high-speed steam vacuum process kills acteria," Wildes explains. He adds that the new system fits within the footprint of an existing packaging line, and it is a major step in the assurance of the safety of hot dogs.

Tasty Tidbits

Recipe for success

While automation and speed have helped save time, labor, and money for manufacturers, the process for making hot dogs is still pretty basic for many operations. In most plants, select meat trimmings (beef, pork, poultry, or a combination) are portioned into small pieces and placed in a mixer where high-speed choppers blend the meat, seasonings, and curing ingredients into an emulsion. The emulsion is then pumped into an automatic stuffer/linker machine, where it is moved into either natural casing or a cellulose casing to be removed at a later time. After the casings are filled, they are linked into long strands of hot dogs and transferred to smokehouses, where they are fully cooked. Packaging is the next step, followed by distribution. Time will tell, however, how much that process will change, depending on some of the latest innovations proposed by equipment makers.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A134920040