Food Engineering

Food Production’s Juggling Act

June 6, 2003
As Food Engineering’s Automation & Manufacturing Conference made clear, processors have to cope with a lot more issues than increased throughput in today’s market.

Lane Paolocci, operations director of supply chain integration at General Mills, offered conference attendees a blueprint for increasing the likelihood their plants will be among the survivors in plant consolidations that follow corporate mergers and acquisitions.
Reconciling the sometimes-contradictory goals of improved food safety and greater production throughput is one of the greatest challenges facing food and beverage manufacturers, and professionals from some of the industry’s leading companies offered insights into how their firms are dealing with these imperatives at Food Engineering’s 2003 Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference and Expo.

About 160 industry professionals attended this year’s event in Clearwater Beach, Fla. The three-day program featured speakers from 16 food companies and related firms, as well as the project team from American Italian Pasta Co. (AIPC), this year’s Food Plant of the Year honoree (see Food Engineering, April 2003). Networking events were interspersed with the presentations, including an exposition featuring 80 suppliers of equipment, automation systems and other manufacturing aids. Conference sessions included topics such as plant efficiency, consolidation issues, automation software and packaging, but food safety was always on the radar.

“Nothing is more important than safety in the food industry. Any company that compromises food safety is committing financial and brand suicide, in addition to breaking the law,” observed Edward H. Lerner, manager of packaging & processing at Welch Foods Inc., Concord, Mass. Lerner’s topic was cutting-edge packaging technologies.

The conference tone was set in an opening-session presentation by Nancy Donley, a Chicago real estate agent who also is a consumer advocate for safer food. Her six-year-old son died from an E. coli 0157:H7-induced hemolytic seizure 10 years ago. As president of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), Donley works with industry to effect changes to reduce human and financial loss related to foodborne illnesses.

“We have to fight this battle on a lot of fronts,” Donley said, and she urged processors to pressure downstream suppliers to implement the kind of safeguards already common in plants. “There will be tremendous resistance to farm-level HACCP, but if the pathogens that affect humans also made the animal sick, producers would be all over their suppliers to institute changes,” she charged.

“Technology is going to drive the food-safety issue,” she added, citing irradiation as a precaution whose “time has come.” No single measure is foolproof, and even the most scrupulous processors can experience setbacks. She singled out Milwaukee-based Emmpak Foods as a processor firmly committed to safe processing of beef products, yet Emmpak was subject to a 2.8 million lb. ground-beef recall last fall. E. coli contamination was suspected in a five-day production window.

Following Donley to the podium was Tom Rourke, Emmpak’s vice president, R&D. He termed irradiation “the most researched food technology ever; it been researched to death.” Though he predicted 17 years ago that meat irradiation would be a standard practice by the mid-1990s, irradiated beef remains a niche product, “and I don’t know why. It works.”

Emmpak was acquired by Cargill’s Excel division a year and a half ago and now is the meatpacker’s further processed division, accounting for about $1 billion in annual sales. The company routinely conducts mock recalls to verify the effectiveness of its systems, and Rourke has overseen the testing of leading edge food-safety interventions. “There are certainly a lot of charlatans out there selling food safety, and there are some excellent companies, as well,” he says.

Emmpak has been in the technological vanguard in using high pressure processing (HPP), clean-room processing, steam pasteurization, post-pasteurization water baths and chillers and a wide variety of chemicals such as sodium lactate, sodium diacetate, Pediocin and buffered sodium citrate to combat microbiological contamination in ready-to-eat meats. Regardless of the effectiveness or limitations of any remedy, the disruption to existing process flows is a formidable barrier to implementation. Chemical companies in particular are guilty of neglecting the engineering aspects of the equipment needed to deliver their food-safety solutions, Rourke suggested. One treatment that showed promise in achieving up to 2 Log reductions in Listeria counts would have required new equipment stretching over 35 feet, an impractical requirement in any existing processing facility.

Don Gugliuzza (with microphone) and members of Tropicana’s People Powered Growth team outline how they improved line maintenance and slashed downtime, saving the juice processor millions of dollars.

Line speed compromise?

Conferees challenged STOP’s Donley for examples of nations with safer food than the U.S. She noted the Japanese destroy entire flocks of chickens if salmonella is detected. In the Netherlands, quarantines and reduced line speeds are ordered if there is an E. coli 0157:H7 incident.

Short shrift to sanitary systems and design in automation projects is the real issue in U.S. processing, suggested keynote speaker Don Butte, president and CEO of Mother’s Kitchen Inc., a Burlington, N.J. maker of cheesecakes and other premium desserts. “One of the biggest benefits of automation is increased reliability,” the former engineer at Post Cereals, Kraft Foods and other leading food manufacturers says, “but the paradox of automation is that, if design details are not addressed, the reverse happens.” Safety, like product quality, is a repeatable function, and “defects pile up” when execution is poor.

“The crises that I have been involved in have all been caused by cleaning issues,” says Butte. “If I had my way, all equipment would be designed for CIP.”

While equipment standardization can drive down lifecycle costs and reduce startup time, it shouldn’t come at a premium. He advocates getting competitive bids from three sources for each capitalization project. “It would be a disaster to get into a standardization program and not get competitive bids,” Butte says.

A different tack is taken at AIPC, where a cadre of key suppliers have equipped all plants. “Not all of our suppliers have stayed with us because they couldn’t keep up and make the significant improvements in equipment design on each project moving forward,” allows Eric Johnson, vice president of engineering. But the preference is to establish close relationships with select vendors and challenge them, rather than re-bid each project. That strategy, coupled with a core engineering team that has been together more than a decade, has helped keep project management costs below 2 percent, he says.

Though AIPC has established itself as the pasta sector’s low-cost provider with highly automated production facilities, engineering isn’t convinced complete integration of plant-wide systems is necessary. The IT budget for the company’s Tolleson, Ariz., plant was $600,000, about 1.3 percent of project cost. The warehouse management system represented the greatest share. Islands of automation do not compromise the plant’s ability to address issues such as traceability and product segregation, managers believe. The company added organic pasta to the product mix last year and will produce about a million pounds this year in a plant that also uses standard semolina.

Manufacturing flexibility, like food safety, tempers the sheer output imperative of years past. Ross Kelley, director of operations for Campbell Soup Co., provided insight into how the soup giant approaches product design to minimize disruptions on the plant floor. Kelley’s role is to represent engineering staff in collaborations with R&D and marketing so that product details are thoroughly understood before any line changes are executed.

Through collaboration and an understanding of long-range product goals, the manufacturing team can strategically design their processing systems to meet current and future new-product needs, Kelley says.

Flexibility has played a role in the survival of Sara Lee Bakery Group’s Tarboro, N.C. plant, a sprawling facility that has gradually expanded to 700,000 sq. ft. since its opening in 1988. Originally built for muffin production, the plant has added pound cake, Danish pastries and other items when less flexible bakeries were shuttered and production shifted to Tarboro.

Manufacturing complexity expands geometrically with product additions, according to Brookes A. Britcher Jr., project and engineering manager. To manage change, flexibility extends beyond the equipment used and includes collaboration with all areas in the plant. For example, 500 new employees had to be hired for the facility’s last expansion, and many existing workers had to be retrained. The challenge for human resources could have been overwhelming, but process managers were flexible in their requirements. “Time spent up front understanding issues of process compatibility and staffing” paid dividends, Britcher says. “Successful bridge-building takes someone who is objective and professional,” and those are the earmarks of successful projects.

Tom Rourke, vice president of R&D at Cargill’s Emmpack Foods division, focused on technological tools to improve food safety.

Up with people

Cooperation is an essential ingredient when operators are part of a statistical process control (SPC) project. Sallee M. Anderson, a process capability manager at the Kellogg Co., Battle Creek, Mich., described her experiences in implementing SPC in cereal plants. Her doctorate in applied statistics equips her to explain the basics of a Shewhart chart and a capability histogram to workers, but effective SPC hinges on the human element.

“Our hardest challenge is getting the line supervisors on board,” reflects Anderson. “If you don’t have the first-line supervisors’ support, it all falls apart. The operators like the system once they understand it, but their supervisors may view it as relinquishing control or a threat to their well being.”

Floor workers have to understand the distinction of a process that is out of spec and one that is out of control and be able to interpret control measurements. “People like to think they are the only person who understands a process, so they begin making adjustments when they begin their shift, even though the process is in control and should be left alone,” Anderson says. Explaining when to make adjustments requires time, patience and people skills.

Worker buy-in and training also are essential for projects such as computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS). Michael Shackelford, applications manager at Seattle-based WestFarm Foods, described the dairy processor’s CMMS experience. In early 2002, CMMS software and PCs were shipped to 12 plants, but cooperation was spotty, at best. CMMS “is a tool; it won’t fix machines, it will not train employees, it will not replace employees,” Shackelford says. Extensive re-training and an overhaul of spare-parts practices were undertaken with 10 to 12 maintenance people at each plant.

CMMS implementation cost $450,000 at the first WestFarm plant, then leveled off at $110,000 for subsequent rollouts. Significant staff time was invested in the project, and maintenance costs went up in the first six months. Since then, costs have fallen 5 percent, and throughput is up 3 percent. “It’s the practices, not the software,” that distinguish successful CMMS implementations, Shackelford said.

The conference concluded with a presentation on the People Powered Growth (PPG) program at Tropicana Products Inc., Bradenton, Fla. PPG has delivered $35 million a year in increased productivity at Tropicana since 2000 by making line operators responsible for identifying maintenance needs and recommending procedural improvements. Half a dozen members of the 96-C production team joined Don Gugliuzza, Tropicana’s manager of operations organizational capability, in explaining how they reduced downtime on one bottling line to 190 minutes from 1,556 minutes in the program’s first year.

The seven-step program began with three equipment-focused measures, then shifted to a personnel focus. “It required a mindset shift in the organization,” explained Adris Khan, with operators identifying potential problems and relying the information to mechanics from simply calling them to service broken machines. Casepack Operator Maria Ramos identified 27 machine improvements that slashed jams and, in some cases, short-circuited breakdowns that would have shut the line down for a day.

Automation has matured to high science in U.S. manufacturing, and additional refinements are on the way. But as this year’s Food Automation & Manufacturing Conference made clear, issues such as workforce development, increased flexibility and improved product safety also must be addressed. Continuous improvement remains an industry imperative.