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Hitchen Foods revisited.

Hitchen Foods revisited

For those of our readers who had the opportunity of visiting the recent International Food Exhibition, IFE '91 at Earls Court, London, they will not have failed to notice the splendidly presented and impressive stand of Hitchen Foods, the vegetable processors from Wigan who supply a number of leading manufacturers of products as diverse as pasties and soup, pizzas and sandwiches. Two years ago this journal had the opportunity of visiting this company who were then in the midst of transfering their operations from Chorley to an eleven and a half acre site outside Wigan. At this time the factory was under construction so that it was possible to see the lengths to which the Hitchen family had gone to achieve the highest standards of hygiene. Two years on, to our most recent visit and the factory looks as clean as when it was built. This aspect of cleanliness and hygiene is most important for a company supplying prepared vegetables, some of which will be consumed raw.

The "goods-in" part of the factory, or "dirty" end receives boxed vegetables, unloaded by forklift, and sampled for quality before entering the factory, where each box load can be identified through a computer system throughout its journey. The boxes are tipped into hoppers from where they pass into a paddle destoner capable of a 12 tonnes per hour throughput, next to a washer and then to an elevator/destoner. From here the vegetables pass on a distribution conveyor to service hoppers with a capacity of three to four tonnes each. Unusually the Nymek drum peelers have reversible sides and bases to extend the life of the carborundum. Onions are first put through a vibrator to lose excess brown skin and then pass through feed hoppers to Finis peelers and Lubot Wakker equipment where they are inspected and finally rinsed prior to packing.

All product after initial cleaning, washing and peeling go through the "hole in the wall" to the clean rooms where further processing takes place under hygienic conditions. This area which has recently been further extended has Cerunert flooring, a hexagonal tile system and throughout, stainless steel channels, gullies, expansion joints and service ducts, all supplied by John L. Lord. The clean rooms are self supporting and therefore GlasBord Fire X cladding was bonded during manufacture to foam slabs so that fully supported one piece panels could be installed. The ceilings are of the same material.

In their continued quest for improved quality and hygiene, Hitchen Foods decided to install their own laundry system. With two hundred and fifty staff, from those working in the "high care" area to transport and engineering staff, the workwear is variable, so is the usuage rate and the degree of soiling. The system chosen and now installed is from Electrolux Wascator and is based on a card- operated model FL 124E washer extractor and a compatible TT350 tumble dryer. The process reduces creasing to an absolute minimum and no ironing is necessary. With just two people responsible for the laundry, a continuous supply of clean workwear is now available.

The two main preparation rooms are equipped with Lubot Wakker screw elevators used for transporting and dipping whole and diced potatoes. Three belt and roller conveyors are used for inspection and trimming of onions and carrots. Extensive use is made of Urschel cutting machines and Hitchen Foods claim one of the largest ranges of spare Urschel knives and cutting tools so that they can produce any type of cut, dice or slice. Knives are replaced regularly to ensure a high quality of cut at all times.

Recently installed is a cryogenic chiller designed by Hitchen Foods in collaboration with BOC (UK) and Lubot Wakker. The idea was to provide an on-line method of reducing the temperature of diced, sliced and whole vegetables from around 15 [degrees] C to below 4 [degrees] C with a capacity or one tonne per hour. The actual equipment is an inclined screw conveyor with direct liquid nitrogen injection. The screw ensures that the product is agitated for adequate exposure and the temperature and retention time control system ensures that product quality is maintained. The machine is double jacketed with the cavity filled with expanded foam, constructed totally of stainless steel, the unit can be cleaned in seconds. One of the items being processed was diced carrot, which was then being delivered to a manufacturer to mix with other vegetables for freezing; this is precisely where the cryogenic chiller comes into its own, since the cooling of the vegetable at the processing stage saves energy to reduce temperature even further later.

The most recent investment has been the MAP packing line for salads and pizza toppings, where the trays are gas flushed, the pack itself is injected with a mixture of gases. It is important to vary the mixture of gases according to product and therefore mixing takes place on site under high security for safety. The MAP line is housed in the "high care" area where personnel have to take extra precautions, including a complete change of clothing and washing and spraying before starting work since some of the product will be eaten raw. Much of the output is mixtures using leaf salads and the line is capable of producing one tonne per hour of products such as shredded iceberg lettuce. The shelf-life depends on the product but can be as long as ten days from day of production. The line can rapidly be changed from product to product and we are told that short runs can be handled with ease. An interesting piece of equipment is the T-cut profile-slicing machine used exclusively for mushrooms, although the company has now started to specialise in profile slicing and their range includes ringed peppers, ringed onions and ringed tomatoes. A speciality of the company is thin sliced tomato and cucumber for sandwich making. Production in all areas finishes at 10pm in the evening, after which all production rooms are fogged to combat any bacteria and provide an hygienic start at 6am the next day.

One of the major problems of any vegetable processor is waste management and therefore when building the factory a full scale effluent processing system was installed with crossflow and counterflow separation. The system allows much of the waste to be returned to local farmers for animal feed and greatly reduces actual effluent which is now treated and purified.

Any factory of this size processing up to 200 tonnes of potatoes per week, 180 tonnes of onions and 60 tonnes of carrots, needs its own laboratory and this is located in the office complex separate from the factory to avoid any unintentional contamination. The laboratory takes care of all microbiological testing and dry matter assessment, more complex analytical work going to a contract laboratory. Seven of eight people are fully occupied on site either in the laboratory, on quality control of raw material or finished product, or in providing quality assurance.

The chill store has a capacity of 120,000 sq.ft., where orders are assembled during the two shift day for delivery to customers using the company's own refrigerated and radio-controlled fleet of vehicles. Delivery times are important as the products are mostly prepared vegetables for further manufacture and changes in requirements by customers must be reflected in production at the factory; one of the reasons for the great flexibility of equipment and procedures.

The layout of the factory has been designed so that supplies of the different vegetables arrive, where possible from local sources, and then move through the different processes in a logical progression around the factory so that minimum transport is required, leading to better quality product and less damage.

To attempt to list the range of products on offer from this modern producer of safe food would be difficult, suffice it to say that Hitchen Foods Plc use vegetables as diverse as beetroot, mushroom, peppers, cauliflower and onions, and help select grades and types of onions, potatoes and carrots to suit the processing needs of the end producer. The sizes and types of cut are of an infinite variety whereby a comparatively small quantity can be processed to exact specifications in this versatile factory.

Hitchen Foods Plc are located at Dobson Park Industrial Estate, Manchester Road, Wigan, tel: 0942 824100.

PHOTO : Hitchen's stand at the recent IFE exhibition in London

PHOTO : One of the four preparation lines

PHOTO : A view of their laboratory

PHOTO : Part of their |high care' area
COPYRIGHT 1991 Food Trade Press Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Food Trade Review
Article Type:company profile
Date:May 1, 1991
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