Plant of the Year

Plant of the Year: Keystone Foods Puts Its Best Food Forward

April 1, 2010
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Emerging from 40 years in the background, Keystone Foods is asserting its capabilities as a contract manufacturer at its brand new Gadsden, AL facility.



Frozen chicken fillets move over vibratory conveyors toward weigh scales in the packaging room. Workers on hand perform a quality assurance function. Photo by Richard Zerby.

The brick and mortar and stainless-steel components of a food plant are physical reflections of the company’s values and direction. In the case of Food Engineering’s 2010 Plant of the Year, corporate direction and values shaped those physical properties.

Keystone Foods LLC emerged from a small beef-boning operation in the late 1960s by developing the cryogenically frozen hamburger patty. The innovation gave birth to the first high-speed forming machines from Formax and, more significantly, reshaped the distribution chain for McDonald’s Corp. Instead of relying on multiple grinders to serve restaurants in a single metropolitan area, the chain’s outlets could buy frozen patties from a central location serving multiple metros and the many hamlets in between. Centralized production also meant greater process control and accountability for food safety.

The recipe management system enforces precise metering of ingredients at the front end of production lines. Photo by Richard Zerby.

Few organizations defend their brand as fiercely as McDonald’s. Food quality and safety are serious business for its key suppliers, and Keystone has constructed a corporate culture around those principles. In the last decade, social responsibility and sustainability have become priorities for brands like McDonald’s, causing sustainability to spread virally throughout the supply chain. Translating those values to the manufacturing environment is a challenge, but by late 2007, Keystone managers hit on a formal plan, which is articulated in the KeySTAR™ program (see related story below).

While wrestling with social responsibility and sustainability, Keystone executives also were coming to grips with expansion into what Keystone terms national industrial accounts-essentially, copacking of finished goods or ingredients for other food companies and foodservice clients. A decision was made: build a modern, high-capacity facility dedicated to national industrial accounts and showcasing Keystone’s capabilities and values. The result was a poultry further processing plant in Gadsden, AL, where the first of three production lines was commissioned in August.

Raw poultry arriving from outside suppliers passes through X-ray inspection machines to ensure bone or other particles do not enter the production stream. Photo by Richard Zerby.

Three plants in one

Keystone is an innovation leader and the Gadsden project reflects it. The 200,000-sq.-ft. facility came with a $118 million price tag and a tightly controlled square-foot cost. Bells and whistles were deferred, but where capital delivered quality and safety improvements, investments were made. The most notable example is the line separation and distinct electric, air-handling and water systems for each of the lines. In effect, Gadsden is three separate plants, bundled together on a single site.

From a common staging area, raw poultry is sent to one of the three lines, never to meet again. The prep room is tightly controlled by a recipe management system, after which product is conveyed into a separate hall housing cooking, freezing and packaging operations. A two-sided viewing corridor straddles the wall between the raw and fully cooked production areas, giving visitors a commanding view of the process without introducing contamination risk. Stainless steel clads insulated panels on the walls and ceiling, and sloped stainless-steel curbs to make processing areas washdown-ready, while chillers, ovens and freezers are CIP-equipped.

Chicken fillets are redirected on their way from a forming machine to the cook room. Production lines have a nominal capacity of 13,000 lbs. an hour, though engineering has pushed throughput well beyond that in spurts. Photo by Richard Zerby.

Roof-mounted air-handling units are positioned over raw-ingredient areas. Should the ducts require repair, the work wouldn’t impact the cook area. Other roof penetrations are likewise isolated away from the processing areas.

“We weren’t trying to guild the building; we simply made it a clean design,” explains Ed Delate, vice president of global engineering and corporate social responsibility. The design for HVAC systems and the separation of process rooms and lines added cost, but it served a higher objective. Improved safety and efficient maintenance will provide the payback. “Simple is better, and the simpler the design, the easier it is to clean,” Delate points out.

Line isolation also “helps with our allergen-control program,” observes Dane Bernard, vice president of food safety & quality at West Conshohocken, PA-based Keystone. “There’s always the possibility of splash-over” in a conventional layout; at Gadsden, isolation creates a Vegas effect: what happens on line 2, stays on line 2. Similarly, a microbiological event would only impact a third of the facility, allowing production to continue in the rest of the plant.

Pat Mayhall uses an infrared sensor to check operating temperatures of utility equipment. A roomy interstitial area above the production floor isolates utility lines and equipment while making maintenance easier for workers. Photo by Richard Zerby.

“USA space” is Keystone’s shorthand for the interstitial area sandwiched between the walk-on ceiling and roof. Both food-safety and maintenance professionals wax with enthusiasm for the USA space, shorthand for the utility space above. Some food manufacturers avoid this approach, believing such spaces will become dust magnets and insect harborages. Quality & Food Safety Manager Bryan Reynolds scoffs at the suggestion. “If you don’t have it on a cleaning schedule, you’re not going to look at it,” he notes, but that’s not the case in Gadsden. Added housekeeping is a small price to pay for isolating pipes, equipment and potential seepage from production. After crawling for 21 years through the utility area at Keystone’s former Gadsden plant, the maintenance team’s 18 mechanics are USA’s biggest fans.

Each of the plant’s 10 ammonia compressors is equipped with a variable speed drive, providing a high level of air-balance control. “If you’re really serious about producing a safe product, it’s critical that, not only are air flows going in the right direction, but the right pressures are being maintained in different zones,” says Mike Santarone, COO at Jacksonville, FL-based Stellar, the project’s A/E firm. The upfront VFD investment will produce long-term energy savings, and the ability to “dial down and make sure you can fine-tune the air balance in every room” is an immediate benefit, he adds.

Ground chicken moves into a staging bin before leaving the raw area for further processing. Walls separate the plant’s three production lines. Photo by Richard Zerby.

The linear layout is space-efficient and a safeguard against product crossover, though it becomes an issue when finished goods reach packaging. The challenges of flexible manufacturing are manifested here. Finished goods are filled in containers ranging from 5-lb. boxes to 1,115-lb. combos. Material-handling specialists Friesen’s Inc. deployed Intralox’s activated roller belt technology at key junctures to move packages and combos 90 degrees without lifts or side transfers. Modular belts with rollers are built into them at an angle have been available for several years, but Gadsden represents the first application where materials exceeding 100 lbs. were transferred, according to Brett Friesen, owner of the Detroit Lakes, MN, equipment integrator. The technology simplifies design, eliminating electronic switches, pushers and other moving parts. Both bags and bulk packages are served by a single metal-detector conveyor, an efficiency that reduced the overall metal-detector count by nine, Friesen calculates.

Once palletized, finished goods are conveyed through a connecting corridor to Southern Cold Storage’s adjoining 70,000-sq.-ft. freezer. A long-time Keystone partner, Southern built the dedicated cold-storage facility to reduce transportation needs and damage rates.

Strict separation of workers between raw and cooked areas has become standard procedure in ready-to-eat plants. Keystone followed the protocol, with separate security entrances, break rooms and personnel amenities. Color-coded uniforms are complemented with color-coded flooring. A red dye was added to a hardener topping on concrete on the raw side, a grey dye in cooked areas. Separate maintenance crews serve raw and cooked, with a common parts room in the middle.

Weigh scales (top) collect finished goods before delivering them to vertical form/fill/seal machines below. Cases are palletized before being conveyed through an enclosed corridor to the cold storage facility connected to the plant. Photo by Richard Zerby.

Safety is a priority

Several months before the project began, Keystone executives appointed Food Safety Director Ken Kenyon to serve as a liaison between engineering and food safety staffs to ensure that principles of sanitary design and food safety were incorporated into every detail of construction and machine design. A food scientist by training, Kenyon instituted an internal food-safety audit program when he joined Keystone a decade earlier. The new assignment “embedded him in the engineering culture” and leveraged his expertise in construction and equipment design, explains Bernard.

“Food safety was the one driver in every meeting,” confirms Stellar’s Santarone. “Whether the topic was drains, floor tiles or any other feature, the question, ‘What are the safety implications in doing this?’ was posed, and we had to verify our response.” Angle-iron supports and sloped surfaces are a manifestation of attention to detail. Hollow tubes are banned from all designs.

“We have a good relationship with Ken,” says Keystone’s Corporate Engineering Director Tim Easterling. A food safety expert’s input into “the selection process and how materials were installed” was valuable, “and the involvement really accelerates when you get to the equipment level,” says Easterling.

The company’s sanitary design requirements go into considerably more detail than general principles promulgated by groups such as the American Meat Institute, and Keystone is willing to pay the necessary premium for machine builders to meet them. For example, multiple changes were specified for newly designed patty-forming machines, “some of them very simple,” Kenyon says.

Energy efficiency and water conservation were priorities, but safety trumped them if there was a conflict. High-efficiency fluorescent lighting is used in many areas of the plant, but temperature ratings and washdown requirements dictated metal halide in certain processing areas.  

Cameras monitor the site’s perimeter, but the bulk of the plant’s 89 cameras serve a biosecurity and quality assurance function. A camera is trained at every point where product is exposed or subject to human handling. Deployment carries over to the adjacent cold-storage facility, where cameras monitor pallet conditions as they are loaded on trailers, documenting their condition as they enter the cold chain.

A microscope, not a camera, is needed to identify the greatest danger in fully cooked protein production. The details of design and execution were meticulously addressed during construction and startup. “Listeria control is about doing 10,000 things right every day,” summarizes Bernard, “and then having a sanitary design that doesn’t undo your details.”

Flooded floors at handwashing sinks ensure boots are sanitized before personnel enter production areas. Photo by Kevin T. Higgins.

Enhanced automation control

Balancing changeover flexibility and high throughput is the copacker’s imperative. The former can be an argument for manual processes. Keystone’s managers opted instead to automate as many processes as possible and to support the facility with the most streamlined controls architecture in their global network of 54 facilities, including 18 processing sites.

A Siemens Simatic IT system was installed at another plant, but it had never been layered on top of both a SCADA system and machine-level controls, an architecture that posed challenges in both integration and equipment-supplier capability. In some cases, machine builders had to acquire the controls expertise to access the plant’s virtual private network to remotely diagnose and maintain their equipment as necessary. More than 500 workers familiar with manual equipment at Keystone’s old Gadsden facility had to be trained to use HMIs and interpret the InfinityQS SPC data they deliver. “There was a fair amount of difference in process capability between the old plant and the new,” reports Plant Manager Mike Jackson, but the transition went smoothly.

More than 100 different customer recipes are being produced in Gadsden, about five times the variety at a typical Keystone facility. Some poultry is formed into sheets and later diced for soup and other products. In other cases, meat is formed or processed as whole muscle with a marinade of the client’s choosing. Managing those recipes and ensuring correct metering of all ingredients justified the more streamlined controls, according to Randy Cline, senior director-reliability and manufacturing systems. If load-cell readings don’t confirm the correct amount of a particular ingredient has been added, the process cannot proceed. Overall, about 1,400 process parameters are monitored, Cline estimates.

Residual benefits extend to maintenance and quality assurance. If a line stops, maintenance technicians immediately look to an HMI to identify the problem area, Cline says. Traceability is more robust, and “it won’t be long before we’ve reduced our paper records” with more-retrievable electronic records, Reynolds predicts. From the time raw materials and ingredients are scanned into the system until finished goods are conveyed to cold storage, the facility is building an electronic genealogy with the goal of full traceability.

Raw product arriving from non-Keystone plants is screened in one of three X-ray machines to detect any bone or other foreign material. A rarity three years ago, dozens of X-ray units are deployed in US poultry plants today, according to Einar Einarsson, president of Marel Food Systems Inc., Lenexa, KS. Improvements in the technology are part of the reason, but a bigger factor is worker shortages that are driving manufacturers to automate as many processes as possible, including quality inspections, Einarsson suggests.

Ergonomics and worker safety were a focus in equipment and workstation design. Alternatives to ammonia refrigeration were used in some areas over concerns for worker safety, and proper air exchange is closely monitored for the same reason. Carbon dioxide is used in batch blending and patty forming to chill the meat, and sensors are in place to prevent over-exposure to personnel.

Macerated chicken breasts are formed into fillets before being conveyed to the cook room. Keystone’s food safety managers specified numerous sanitary design changes to the forming equipment. Photo by Richard Zerby.

Environmental high road

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) became an issue in food production in recent years, though it resides primarily in the domain of publicly traded companies. While Keystone moved from family ownership to an investment partnership in recent years, it remains firmly planted in the closely held column. In a survey of about 100 food and beverage companies, O’Brian & Gere (OBG) engineering found only 25% were implementing a sustainability or CSR programs, and only a handful were reporting greenhouse gas emissions to organizations such as the Global Reporting Initiative. Among them is Keystone.

Based in Blue Bell, PA, OBG performed dozens of engineering projects for Keystone before it was commissioned to support the development of a corporate sustainability program in 2007. According to Lee Davis, president & COO at OBG, “What made it successful was the top-down support at the highest levels (of Keystone), the connection to their business plan and now the bottom-up support it has.”

The effectiveness of grassroots involvement is cited in “Global Best of Green 2009,” a report by McDonald’s Global Environmental Council. “Within a relatively short time frame, local teams have identified projects and established improvement goals” throughout Keystone’s network, the McDonald’s report notes, significantly compressing the timeline compared to centrally directed efforts. “By driving projects such as waste reduction and recycling, water reuse and electricity reduction, the local facility KeySTAR™ sustainability teams are successfully reducing costs while improving the environment.”

Environmental engineering is OBG’s strong suit. The firm designed, built and now operates the wastewater pretreatment facility at the Gadsden site. The facility was designed to allow about 500,000 gallon of water to flow through each day, and the plant is performing well. Not only is the end result better than at the former Gadsden facility, the process is more robust. Integrated controls, timers and energy-efficient motors and lighting ensure that run times are optimized, chemical use is minimized and operational performance is top notch. OBG is seeking re-use applications for the grease it removes from the stream before treatment.

“Ed Delate has tremendous passion for sustainable manufacturing and is committed to driving this effort,” summarizes Davis. “Keystone wants to be leaders in their supply chain network, and they have a well thought-out program to get there.”

Meticulous planning is a hallmark of the company’s approach, be it sustainability, food safety or new construction. The groundwork for Gadsden was being laid long before the first shovelful of dirt was turned. The result is a modern food manufacturing plant with beauty that’s more than skin deep.

For more information:
Brett Friesen, Friesen’s Inc., 218-844-4437
Einar Einarsson, Marel Inc., 913-888-9110, einar.einarsson@marel.com
Lee Davis, O’Brien & Gere, 215-628-9107
Mike Santarone, Stellar, 904-899-9336, msantarone@stellar.net

Mike Jacobs inspects the filters on a 2,200-HP, 2-MW backup generator at Southern Cold Storage, which partnered with Keystone to build and manage a captive distribution center on the 98-acre site. The generator has enough power to support an additional 35,000 sq. ft. of cold storage space. Photo by Kevin T. Higgins.

CSR with teeth

While skeptics may dismiss corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs as image-conscious efforts, CSR continues to shape manufacturing practices at leading companies, despite economic conditions. It’s an initiative embraced at Keystone Foods LLC, and a big part of the push comes from engineering.

Five members of the corporate engineering staff are part of the Corporate Social Responsibility Team that steers KeySTAR™, the corporate sustainability program that articulates social goals and expectations and why they are integral to the organization’s business strategy. (STAR is an acronym for Socially responsible growth, Total commitment, Achieving balance and Respect for the environment and future generations.) Key performance indicators for energy and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, employee health and safety, philanthropy and other areas are established under KeySTAR™. Managers’ financial incentives are tied to improvements in the KPI scorecard.

Company policy historically has eschewed public disclosures, but Ed Delate, vice president of global engineering and corporate social responsibility and a member of the company’s Leadership Team, believes today’s business climate demands greater transparency. He is pushing for publication of the KeySTAR™ corporate social responsibility report.

Keystone believes it has a solid record in social and environmental responsibility, and management wants to take a leadership position by engaging its suppliers, the marketplace, the community and its own staff. As part of the effort, the company organized a cross-industry roundtable of major corporations to meet quarterly to discuss best practices in the workplace, marketplace, community and environment.    

The KeySTAR™ program was launched in December 2007. Major shifts are occurring in workforce demographics, consumer concerns over food safety and nutrition, global climate change and “emerging socio-economic concerns in the global communities in which Keystone operates,” the company believes. A reasoned response to those changes is essential to the firm’s future growth and financial success, the report notes.

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