Pickles, Pretzels, Polyols & Prepared Fresh Foods

March 27, 2003
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Four new Midwestern plants exemplify some current trends: consolidation, HMRs, new technologies and new ingredients.

Company: Vlasic Foods International
Location: Imlay City, MI
Total Plant Size: 60,000 sq. ft.
Completion Date: May 1998
No. Employees: 400 additional (seasonal)
Cost: $20 million
Products Produced: Pickle cuts including spears, stackers, chips, wholes and relish, plus peppers.
Volume: 9 million cases per year
Architect/Engineers: SSOE, Toledo, OH

Vlasic Foods International consolidated pickle production at its Imlay City, MI plant by converting 60,000 sq.-ft of warehouse space into manufacturing facilities, and relocating pasteurizing and packaging equipment for two production lines from its Bonduel, WI plant. The $20 million fast-track project, executed by SSOE, Inc. (Toledo, OH), includes a new cucumber-receiving facility, new water-jet slicing equipment, new manufacturing software, new utilities, automated wastewater-treatment additions, and new employee amenities.

The project increased the number of production lines at Imlay City from six to eight, boosts plant capacity by 80 percent (from five to nine million cases per year), and adds 400 employees (100 for each relocated line on two shifts). Employment ranges from 240 during the off-season to 850 during the cucumber harvest season. Overall, the plant produces 147 SKUs including "spears," "stackers," "chips," "wholes," relish and peppers packaged in glass jars, as well as spears and Jalapeno peppers in No. 10 cans for foodservice operators.

The two new lines process and package stackers and spears in 24-oz. and 32-oz. jars. The new facility was a nominee in Food Engineering's 1999 "New Plant of the Year" competition.

Prior to its spinoff from Campbell Soup Co., Vlasic determined that consolidated production would reduce fixed assets and operating costs. The project team -- headed by Campbell Project Manager Frank Hochmuth, Imlay City Engineering Manager Bruce Sharp, and SSOE Project Manager Bob Howell -- selected the design/bid method to achieve the lowest installed cost for a fast-track project. SSOE was awarded the design contract in November 1996, and selected The Bell Co. (Fraser, MI) as construction manager. Installation and de-bug were accomplished between November 1997 to May 1998, peak cucumber seasons. All systems became fully operational during the 1998 crop year.

Blends new & relocated equipment

According to Plant Engineer Bruce Sharp, relocated equipment included vacuum brine fillers, pasteurizers, tray-pack shrink-wrappers and depalletizers. New equipment includes a cucumber-unloading system fabricated by Gilson Screen Co.; six cucumber indexer/feeders modified from a potato-equipment design by Grovedale; and six 37,000-psi water-jet slicers from Stein/FMC FoodTech -- the first application of water-jet technology to slicing pickles.

In this operation, pickles are debutted (cut to length) by the indexer, then finely slit lengthwise into 3/16 or 1/4-inch slices (depending on product) by water jet but emerge with slices holding together like a whole pickle. This facilitates downstream filling operations.

Building renovations

Two connected barrel-roof warehouses, each enclosing about 30,000 sq.-ft., were converted to house the relocated pickle lines: One houses the "wet side" (processing), the other the "dry side" (packaging). This required new concrete floor slabs to support equipment; sloped, epoxy-topped floors with new drains to facilitate washdown in the wet area; new sanitary ceilings in the wet area, and a painted sheetmetal ceiling in the dry area. New construction totaling about 10,000 sq.-ft. included the enclosed cucumber-unloading facility; a boiler room; and an employee-services area with lunchroom, restrooms and lockers.

Process profile

The plant operates three shifts per day (two production, one cleanup/sanitation), five to seven days per week depending on the season. Peak harvest season runs from May 1 through mid-November. Allen-Bradley PLCs control the process on all eight production lines. New Wonderware operator-interface software was installed with the two relocated production lines and has since been added to the other lines.

On the two new lines, cucumbers delivered JIT are inspected and water-flumed out of delivery trucks to brush washers, then dewatered and conveyed across manual inspection belts, where rejects are returned to receiving via gravity water flow. Cucumbers are then conveyed into the indexing/debutting systems and through the water-jet slicers. Meanwhile, jars are depalletized, washed and conveyed to the packing area, where jars are packed with pickles either manually or by Solbern fillers and conveyed through vacuum brine fillers, cappers, dud detectors, coders, pasteurizers, labelers and into the integrated tray-former/loader/packer/wrappers with built-in ink-jet case coders. Cases are palletized automatically and stretch wrapped.

On the six older lines, pickles are pumped from a tank farm into containers, which are mechanically dumped into de-salting tanks and flumed into metering hoppers feeding three retail lines, two foodservice lines and a relish line. Cucumbers are mechanically sliced and diced, but otherwise the process is similar to that of the two new lines.

Tight QC

Continuous improvement of the quality system is part of the plant's HACCP program. According to QA Manager Debra Phillips, incoming cucumbers are graded for color, defect level and size. In-process and finished-product tests include analyses for pH, sugar, calcium chloride, yeasts, molds, preservatives, enzyme activity, texture, Brix and salt. Temperatures are monitored at the briners and pasteurizers. Filled containers are analyzed for head space, vacuum, cap security and seal integrity. Plant sanitation is monitored by swab analysis and ATP-biolumenesence tests.

Pretzels Inc. Arises From Ashes

Company: Pretzels, Inc.
Location: Bluffton, IN
Total Plant Size: 170,000 sq. ft.
Completion Date: August 1998
No. Employees: 200
Cost: $20 million
Products Produced: Pretzels, corn snacks Architect/Engineers: Shambaugh & Son, Inc., Fort Wayne, IN

There was no Merry Christmas in Bluffton, IN when fire gutted 70 percent of the 170,000 sq.-ft. Pretzels Inc. plant on December 24, 1997, threatening survival of the company and the livelihood of 200 employee families.

But having co-packed for competitor Wyandot, Inc. when that company's plant at Marion, OH totally burned down just 14 months earlier, executives at Pretzels Inc. turned to the same engineering firm -- Shambaugh & Son (Ft. Wayne, IN) -- that rebuilt and upgraded the Wyandot plant.

Shambaugh initiated a crash fast-track design/build project that helped Pretzels Inc. restore production of its specialty rod pretzels in just six weeks, and renew production of its other pretzel and corn-snack varieties with a totally new, $20 million plant of improved design completed in just eight months. "We were back in business a little by June '98," recalls Bill Mann, co-owner with Bill Huggins of Pretzels, Inc. "We started one line, then another, and another, and by December of last year we were running all of our lines pretty good."

During construction of its new plant, Pretzels survived by employing 11 or 12 co-packers; supplying co-packers with packaging materials; leasing a Ft. Wayne warehouse for receiving co-packed product, assembling and shipping customer orders; stretching order lead time from seven to 21 (later 14) days; retaining most employees by paying 60% of regular salary and maintaining insurance benefits; and boosting production on the two lines at its smaller "Pretzel Two" plant in Beloit, WI.

Although co-packers couldn't replicate the rod pretzel, they could manufacture other Pretzel varieties including twists, sticks, logs and Dutch, as well as cheese-coated corn "crunchies" and puffs. "As competitors we beat each other to death, but on Christmas Day I received calls from people who were willing to pack for us," says Mann. "I'll never forget it." The Wyandot people were especially helpful, he adds. "We had packed for them, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, when they were down. They were no more up and running again when we burned down, then they did the same for us."

Production challenges

About half the building -- 88,000 sq.-ft. -- was rebuilt in mid-winter. The project team, headed by Shambaugh Project Manager Gary Perkey and Pretzels Plant Engineer Steve Kellogg, took some risks. Floors had to be poured, but -- thanks to mild weather -- drains were not frozen and some floor slabs were reused. Shambaugh, which operates its own steel-fabrication shop, pre-fabricated and delivered all structural steel by late February -- in about half the typical time required -- and installed it before its contract with Pretzels Inc. was signed.

First manufacturing priority was to restore rod production, which couldn't be duplicated by co-packers. Except for smoke damage, all of the plant's pretzel-forming and oven equipment was reuseable. According to Kellogg, Pretzels employees cleaned and refurbished two of the plant's three Reading Pretzel Machinery (RPM) systems, borrowed two new vertical form/fill/seal packaging machines from Hayssen, refurbished two Ishida scales, salvaged some conveyor pieces and flour tubing to the silo, recommissioned an old manually-fed mixer and "jury-rigged them all together." Shambaugh fabricated the support structures, built a temporary wall with ventilation around the system, "and we were back to running the rod in six weeks."

Redesigned plant

The one positive aspect of the fire was the opportunity to redesign the plant, which had been expanded six times since original start-up in 1976, resulting in inefficient material flows. "Our engineering approach is not 'tell us what you want,' but 'explain to us your business,'" says Shambaugh CEO Mark Shambaugh.

According to Shambaugh Process Engineer Earl Opperman, the project team asked itself: "'What would we really like to do, now that we have to do this all over again?' So we came up with ways of streamlining the process." Production now follows a T-shape, with straight-line processes feeding 23 new packaging lines in the perpendicular packaging area. Each packaging system consists of an Ishida (Heat and Control) statistical weigher atop a Hayssen vertical f/f/s bagging machine.

All seven pretzel ovens -- three RPMs and four Sasibs, each equipped with RPM forming equipment -- were reclaimed and reinstalled. The three RPMs feed five packaging lines; the four Sasibs supply 14 packaging lines. Tube conveyors transport pretzels from the baking lines to Heat and Control FastBack conveyors feeding the packaging machines.

Flying Food Group Soars into HMRs

Company: Flying Food Group
Location: Chicago, IL
Total Plant Size: 45,000 sq. ft.
Completion Date: May 1998
No. Employees: 150
Cost: $3 million (approximately)
Products Produced: Fresh sandwiches, salads, entrees, side dishes, pizza, party trays and complete meals
Volume: 1,200 units per day
Architect/Engineers: Facilities Design, Columbia, PA

Airline caterer Flying Food Group (FFG) started-up a new, USDA-inspected 45,000 sq.-ft. plant adjacent to Chicago's Midway Airport in May 1998, to supply both airline meals and private-label fresh refrigerated home meal replacements (HMRs) to Chicago food retailers.

Founded in 1983, FFG operates nine commissaries -- eight in the U.S. and one in Shanghai -- supplying international airlines such as Air France, British Airways and Malaysian Airways, as well as domestic airlines which operate from Midway. The new Chicago plant, designed jointly by FFG and Facilities Design (Columbia, PA), operates seven days per week with 150 employees on two shifts producing 75 to 100 SKUs for airlines and about 200 retail locations including chain and independent supermarkets, convenience stores and specialty shops. Products include fresh sandwiches, salads, entrees, side dishes, pizza, party trays and complete meals with refrigerated shelf lives ranging from one to seven days. All products are shipped daily DSD (direct store delivery) via a leased fleet of eight refrigerated trucks. Trucks can leave the shipping dock within hours of receiving an electronic order from a retailer. "We have JIT production," says Milton Liu, vice president/meal solutions.

Producing HMRs for local retailers is a logical extension of the airline catering business. Air traffic from Midway, Chicago's original municipal airport and much smaller than O'Hare, started declining in the mid-'80s as deregulation and restructuring caused a "shakeout" among airlines, Liu observes. "So we started looking for new business." FFG invested in food scientists and R&D staff, upgraded food safety training and techniques, and built a team to focus on HMR sales, service and operational support. "We partner with customers to determine consumer demand for high-quality freshly prepared foods, and to develop the right offerings," Liu adds. As required by USDA, FFG developed and implemented a HACCP plan with critical control points including raw material inspection and temperature, plant temperature and cooking temperatures.

Product flow in the new plant follows a U-shaped pattern, with temperature maintained at 45° F from receiving docks through production areas to the shipping docks. Plant layout segregates different raw materials from each other, and raw materials from finished products, to minimize the possibility of cross-contamination. Raw meats, for example, are stored in one 40? F walk-in cooler; fresh fruits, vegetables and cooked deli meats in another. All raw materials are removed from packaging in a decanting room before moving into production rooms. "There's no glass or cardboard on the production floor," Liu points out. Vegetables, fruits and deli meats are washed and sliced in a separate prep room.

Production equipment is all new. Cooking and bake-off (for frozen and refrigerated dough products) equipment includes two rotary rack ovens, a double convection oven, a six-burner range; a fryer and a proofer from Hobart; three steam-jacketed kettles and a tilt skillet from Groen; a griddle and a char-broiler from Vulcan; and a Nieco conveyor broiler.

Consumer-packaged products are manually assembled in polystyrene containers and shrink-wrapped on a 16-ft. belt conveyor, which transports packages through an open panel into the segregated order-assembly room, where individual store orders are picked and trayed in stackable plastic.

Roquette Starts-Up Crystalline Maltitol Plant

Company: Roquette America, Inc.
Location: Keokuk, IA
Total Plant Size: 25,000 sq. ft.
Completion Date: July 1999
Products Produced: MALTISORB maltitol
Volume: Several thousand metric tons per year
Architect/Engineers: Roquette America, Keokuk, IA; Roquette Freres, Lestrem, France

Roquette America, the U.S. unit of Roquette Freres (Lestrem, France), started-up a new multimillion-dollar 25,000 sq.-ft. crystalline maltitol facility July 7 at Keokuk, IA. According to a Roquette spokesperson, the company is the only U.S. producer of crystalline maltitol. The facility has annual capacity of several thousand metric tons, and integrates with Roquette's existing polyol (carbohydrate derivatives) plant at Keokuk, built in 1996 which produces sorbitols.

Roquette's MALTISORB crystalline maltitol is a corn-derived GRAS bulk sweetener with 0.9:1 sucrose equivalency. It can be used alone or with other ingredients to produce sugar-free and non-cariogenic foods. With only 2.1 calories per gram (as opposed to 4 calories per gram for other carbohydrates, including sucrose), MALTISORB can be used to formulate reduced-calorie foods.

The new plant project and its construction were managed by Roquette America's engineering group, based at Keokuk, with support from Roquette Freres' engineering group. Basically, the Roquette-patented process involves hydrolyzing corn starch to high maltose/glucose syrup, catalytic hydrogenation of the syrup to liquid maltitol, concentration of the liquid maltitol through evaporation, then drying and screening to crystalline form.

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