Best practices, not faddish trends, drive plant innovation at Pennsylvania poultry processor.
Food processors can be victims of their own efficiency. Through much of the Twentieth Century, a focus on making products faster and cheaper drove down the prices consumers paid. Many products became commodities, and selling quality became problematic.
Poultry is a case in point. Whole birds can retail for 49 cents a pound or less. Computing gross margin requires a nanocalculator. Mercifully, a business model based on premium products is emerging, thanks to the natural and organic foods trend. Processors are developing a market for value-added poultry at $2 per pound, a level that surely elicits silent cheers in places like Springdale, AR, and Pittsburg, TX.
Farmers Pride Inc. in Fredericksburg, PA, is one of the originators of the premium poultry segment. Management believes chickens, like people, are what they eat, and antibiotics-free feed is fundamental in Farmers Pride's philosophy. Respect for the integrity of the process-how livestock is handled, how workers are treated, what plant practices are deployed-also are part of Farmers Pride's operating ethic. The latter two principals were key considerations when the 66-year-old firm planned last year's $26 million plant expansion and upgrade project. Production yield took a backseat to product improvement as management implemented changes to raise value to a higher level.
The centerpiece of the project is a multi-phase air-chill system to replace conventional immersion chilling. Substituting chilled air for chilled water adds approximately a nickel a pound to Farmers Pride's processing costs, and it means the weight of 6 to 8 percent water pickup from a tub no longer is added. On the plus side, meat that hasn't served as a sponge for chlorinated water is firmer and more flavorful, ownership notes. "We want people to recognize that the Bell & Evans brand is the best of the best, and air chilling raises the bar," says CEO Bruno Schmalhofer.
Air chilling is not new technology; the European market requires it because of the cross-contamination issues with water immersion. The first US application occurred seven years ago at a poultry operation in Tecumseh, NE. Scott Sechler, Farmers Pride's owner, began planning his plant's implementation two decades ago. He visited operations with air-chill systems throughout Europe, learning the technology's potential and limitations and how it could be improved before inking a contract with Meyn America two years ago. "The technology to do what we've done didn't exist 20 years ago," Sechler says. "The Meyn engineers loved the challenge of a project without a budget but with exacting specifications. They were scared; frankly, their reputation around the world was at stake."
Four miles of rolled stainless steel were fabricated in the Netherlands and shipped, along with approximately 30,000 shackles and other components, to Fredericksburg to assemble two chill lines. Rust-resistant galvanized chain propels the shackles along the rail. Stainless-steel roof decking provides an added safeguard against corrosion from oxidized metal. To prevent cross contamination from dripping, the birds remain at the same elevation during their approximately 160-minute trip through three zones. The no-stacking setup extends the chill area over the evisceration and cut-up rooms below.
The compartmental design of the chiller provides both practical and processing advantages, according to Russ Williams, Meyn's marketing & business development manager. Sanitation can be performed in one zone while production continues in the others, and the compartments can serve as storage areas in the event of a production interruption. Multi-phase chilling also provides greater flexibility and control of humidity and temperature set points. In the first phase, birds are conveyed through spray cabinets where chilled water is spritzed on the carcass to aid evaporative cooling and prevent any discoloration during the process. The greatest carcass heat loss occurs in the second zone. Finally, birds enter a stabilization zone where deep muscle temperature descends from about 40
Adding value everywhere
The chilling system doubles the plant's electrical demand to 7,500 kW. Four large air-handling units plus a network of ammonia piping and related hardware populate the rooftops of the newest addition and a $10 million expansion completed five years ago. A 500 kW backup generator was installed to keep the plant operational if the power grid falters.
Brickwork from the Farmers Pride plant built in 1939 is still visible inside the facility, though older sections are being converted to offices and other non-production uses. The entire structure covers 177,000 sq. ft., with the 115,000 sq. ft. added in the last two projects serving as the processing area. "Construction workers had to observe food-safety rules during the construction, and the plant had to stay in service the whole time," recalls Suitt's Arnold. The logistics of working around an existing facility meant dealing with buried lines that might or might not be live, and a forgotten cellar was unearthed during excavation. Construction took 12 months but in the end yielded a facility with logical product and personnel flows.
While Farmers Pride only accounts for 0.5 percent of the US broiler market, its prominence in the natural segment prompted Newman's Own Organics to strike a supply agreement 18 months ago for petfood ingredients. Two new improvements will allow Farmers Pride to deliver even better value-added ingredients.
One upgrade is a vacuum conveying system installed by Taifun Engineering Oy Ltd., a Finnish firm. Five loops with up to six nodes on each collect trimmings, heads, feet, viscera and other byproducts throughout the plant. The tubes extend 700 feet or more into the picking, evisceration, cut-up and deboning rooms. Each node opens in sequence to suck accumulated byproducts into the conveying system. Twin 125-hp compressors help sustain pressure of 100-120 psi inside the tubes. Vacuum conveying eliminates considerable manual labor: three workers in deboning alone used to haul byproducts to the collection area.
For meat destined for petfood, quality assurance was a key design consideration. Trim goes through a metal detector-equipped meter before entering a mincer designed by Anco-Eaglin Engineering. The second upgrade, a mincer, reduces particle size to as small as 3 mm, then pumps it through a series of six scraped-surface heat exchangers for rapid chilling to 34
Moving from chilling to cut-up, birds are weighed on load cells and move through a vision grading system at a rate of 210 per minute. Two high-resolution cameras capture images of the front and back of each bird. Broken wings, torn skin, blisters and other quality indicators are identified and scored by the system. The data then are collated with each bird's weight and batched to the M3000 plant control system.
Based on customer orders, M3000 sorts the birds to packaging as whole fryers or to the three portioning lines. Depending on their weight and quality profile, the optimal cut line is automatically selected. Routing is executed within seconds of vision grading.
Tied to M3000 is the flock track & trace (FTT) data management system. A distinct batch number is assigned to each farmer's flock as it arrives at the plant. Weight and quality data is tracked for each bird in the flock. FTT is expected to be a powerful tool in identifying where problems are occurring at the farm level so they can be addressed. The information also serves USDA inspectors, who can incorporate data into Crystal Reports that relieve them of paper-based regulatory reporting.
Data from PLCs and control panels feed into a single desktop PC in a central room overlooking the cut-up area. "Operators on the mezzanine can basically control what goes where in the cut-up room," explains IT Manager Justin Sherwood. Alarm reports, failure analysis and mechanical performance are monitored at the PC. Quality data indicating excessive blistering could trigger a review of scald temperatures, for example.
A computerized maintenance management system also is being implemented. Bar-code scanning of replacement parts requires a cultural change for the 30-plus maintenance workers, but the company is committed to automating and upgrading the maintenance function. "We want to put out an excellent product, and you need quality equipment to do it," explains Bill Gruber, vice president of production. "Having a process to follow preventive maintenance schedules requires a mindset, and we have the support of management to create it."
Acid brick flooring was selected as much for its no-slip advantages for workers as its long-term durability. A search for ergonomically designed chairs for operators and inspectors in the cut-up room led to an Ohio supplier to the healthcare industry. The chairs' five-legged design provides superior stability and comfort and allows workers to push portions down inclined tables to passing conveyors while remaining seated. Blue belting was specified because of the contrast it provides to the white meat. "Most processors won't pay a nickel a foot extra for blue belts, which are much easier on the eyes when grading white chickens; they'd rather wear out the employees, instead," Sechler scoffs. "We made a point to make this as colorful a place as we could."
Plant security was a consideration long before terrorism was a concern. Fencing and a checkpoint secure the perimeter, and surveillance cameras monitor both street traffic and movement inside the plant. Employee welfare was the driver: "We want employees to feel safe here, regardless of what is going on at home," explains Sechler. A troubled domestic partner is more likely to inflict harm than an Amish jihadist, after all.
Farmers Pride didn't just ride the natural foods wave: it helped shape it. The strength of the Bell & Evans brand has pushed annual sales to $130 million, and both retailers and food manufacturers tout the label in their own consumer communications.
When Sechler acquired the firm in 1984, the prime rate was 19 percent, and the loan he negotiated was at prime plus 3 percent. Double-digit sales growth helped the firm achieve profitability within eight years, and the bull market for natural and organic food products enabled the firm to finance most of last year's project from corporate revenues.
"I was 24 when I bought the plant, and I always tried to offer a little better quality than everyone else," Sechler recalls. "Instead of selling customers what they didn't want for 19 cents a pound, I picked the best chickens at the right weight and they paid me 30 cents for what they wanted." An iconoclast was born, and for the last two decades he's been challenging convention and helping reshape best practices in the poultry business.
Animal byproducts were eliminated from the flocks' diet early on, and antibiotics were banned in 1998. The all-vegetable diet is supplemented with vitamins, and an expeller-pressed extrusion process is used for soybean feed to eliminate the possibility of hexane gas residues from solvent extraction. Clean bedding, heated houses and stress-free practices are among the flock-handling principles. Third-party inspectors audit farm and plant practices, a quality assurance measure Sechler urged key customers to demand of all suppliers a decade ago.
Just as farm practices have evolved, best practices in the plant continue to change. Sechler's latest crusade was to eliminate the use of chlorine, an initiative that requires altering staff mindsets that view chemical sanitation as a requirement. Ozonated water and steam cleaning are among the alternative tools being deployed.
Double-digit growth remains the norm in natural and organic foods, and at some point they will make the transition from niche to mainstream products. Just-completed processing improvements bolster Farmers Pride's leadership claims in the segment, and the company is contemplating a second plant, when the new facility reaches capacity in two years. When it begins that project, the key consideration will be how to raise quality, not how to lower costs.
For more information:
Rick Eaglin, Anco Eaglin,
Matt Smith, AWB Engineers,
Heath Jarrett, Meyn America LLC,
John Arnold, Suitt Construction Co.,
Jari Paananen, Taifun Engineering Oy Ltd.,
011-358 40 770 7600,