A natural disaster knocked Cooper Farms out of the further-processing business, but the turkey firm has come back swinging.

The Cooper Farms processing plant as it looked the day after a tornado struck.

If a storm cloud can have a silver lining, why not a funnel cloud? Mark Hellinger, president of CME Corp., a general contractor in Fort Wayne, Ind., remembers the phone call he received on Veterans Day 2002 to investigate "wind damage" at the Cooper Farms cooked meats plant in nearby Van Wert, OH. What he found was a scene of near-total destruction: a tornado rated at F4, with wind speeds exceeding 200 mph, had carved a path across the farmfields the day before.

The rebuilt Cooper Farms processing plant where production commenced seven months later.

Deep furrows in the land marked the point where the twister touched down a few miles to the Southwest. By the time it reached the turkey plant, its swath had expanded to a quarter mile. Pressure variances caused the building to explode, with tractor-trailers strewn like toys on the lawn and what remained of the roof. Stationery from the plant would turn up in Toledo, 100 miles to the Northeast.

Mercifully, the building was vacant, though some neighbors were not so fortunate. A handful of deaths were attributed to the November 10 storm. To the survivors fell the job of picking up the pieces, and for the next few weeks it was uncertain if there were enough pieces to restore the plant where 110 employees worked.

"Being good Midwesterners, the Coopers' first concerns were their customers and their employees," recalls Hellinger, whose firm has made a specialty of food-plant construction in the last 15 years. Jobs were found or created at the company's three other facilities-a hatchery, slaughter plant and feed mill-and copacking agreements with regional processors were sealed. "About 18 months earlier, we put together a Midwest consortium of turkey people and made a gentlemen's agreement to help each other out if anything happened to one of us," says Gary Cooper, chief operating officer. "We never thought we'd be the first to tap that agreement."

Site clean up began two days after the disaster, but the plant's future hung in the balance. On December 1, Hellinger estimated it would take nine months to rebuild the plant, 12 to 14 months to expand it. The next day, CEO Jim Cooper made a counter proposal: expand the facility by 50 percent to 75,738 sq. ft. and have it ready to resume production by June 16. "The fur was flying," Hellinger laughs. By early January, he had drafted a $12 million project contract, and work commenced.

The engine and compressor room and the steel frame of the former office area were the only salvageable elements of the old building, originally built in 1972 as a meat locker and acquired 20 years later by Cooper. Expansion projects in 1998, 2000 and 2002 enabled the plant to meet contemporary standards. However, layered on top of a retrofit, they resulted in a less than optimal plant design. Reconstruction presented an opportunity to make the facility more than the sum of its parts.

Removing a trailer from the plant's roof was one of the first orders of business as the rebuilding project got underway.

Higher saintary standards

People and processes on the raw and cooked sides of the plant were separated before the disaster, but the degree of segregation increased significantly in the new facility. There are now only three building-access points, besides shipping and receiving docks in the fenced yard. A receptionist at the main entrance controls visitor access, and key card-accessed side doors serve workers in the raw and cooked meat groups. Separate lockers, breakrooms and washrooms were built, and a single corridor links the two halves of the plant. Ovens were upgraded with PLC controls and reconfigured so raw meat enters one side and cooked product exits the other, eliminating a common area that used to exist.

The devil is in the details of food safety, and management invests heavily in improvements that provide incremental gains in food safety. Contractors were directed to purchase stainless steel screws and other fasteners. Stainless steel wall panels are everywhere, even in the box-making area. An estimated 21 miles of USDA-approved caulk was used to seal those panels, not just in the tongue and groove area but also along the inside seam where the panels join. The idea was to eliminate crevices that potentially could harbor bacteria.

Gray floor tiles mark the divide between raw from cooked areas of the plant. The corridor is the only link between the two areas, and human resources was placed there to serve both work groups.

Stainless steel ferrules were used as fittings for the plant's piping in processing areas. Pipes run vertically, dropping down from a mezzanine level that is sealed off from the processing floor. Lighting fixtures are sealed to the processing rooms' ceilings, eliminating potential roosts for dust and dirt.

Reconstruction allowed improvements to the refrigeration system, an update that would have been too disruptive if production was going on, says general manager Eric Ludwig. A fifth compressor was added and, more significantly, an energy management system was installed to cycle compressors depending on load demand. One measure of the improved efficiency is a 20 percent reduction in product freezing time.

The refrigeration system also chills clean rooms and other areas of the processing floor, which are held at approximately 35°F. The system delivers 15,000 cubic feet of triple-filtered air per minute, significantly increasing positive air pressure on those rooms. A UV unit on the cooling coils helps sanitize the chilled air. For worker comfort, duct socks surround the air ducts, diffusing the chilled air as it enters the room.

Stainless steel drains and traps are designed with catch baskets to prevent any waste larger than a square inch from entering the waste-treatment lagoon. The drains themselves are divided into a system of 12 zones, with a gravity flow monitor on each drain to prevent back ups. Each drain can be isolated, capped and flushed with disinfectant if contamination is suspected.

One-button recall

Six months before the disaster, Cooper began phasing in an automated tracking and tracing system from M-Tech International, also known as Cat2. The system includes a suite of tools for further processing, including a yield management component. The rebuilding project presented a chance to add several scales at strategic points, greatly enhancing the ability to assess order profitability, waste rates, the impact of formulation changes and other aspects of yield management.

"Cooper already was collecting yield data and identifying where their losses were. The problem, though, was that it was paper based, which doesn't really do you much good when it comes to analyzing what is going on in the plant," explains Rex Oliver, global support manager for Conway, Ark.-based M-Tech.

Tracking and tracing is an industry hot button, with requirements of the Bioterrorism Act adding to the heat processors already are feeling from customers who want to work with suppliers with the ability to quickly recall any at-risk product. Cooper workers use scanner-equipped palm pilots to capture bar code data on all incoming raw materials and ingredients, beginning a record-building process that provides real-time data of temperature readings, process steps, shipping information and other need-to-know data. The system has helped Cooper leapfrog to the front tier of suppliers in customer-sponsored audits of traceability performance.

A worker stages turkey breasts at the brine injection machine. All batch information and customer specifications can be accessed at the HMI screen.

"It's a one-button recall system," Ludwig says, with everything from the bird's date of slaughter, process steps and temperature readings, when it was boxed and which case it arrived in at the customer's door available. "We have to be complete with our records within two hours" in third-party mock recalls, he adds, and the system enables Cooper to meet the standard.

The Van Wert tornado posed a financial and human hardship for Cooper Farms. About 16 staff members were deployed to four copacking facilities to ensure customer recipes and QA requirements were met. Those workers were separated from their families for weeks at a time. Fast-track construction meant less disruption to their lives, as well as shorter exposure to premium processing costs for the company.

CME set up a special web site for the project to facilitate communications between subcontractors, Cooper management and other need-to-know parties. Coordinated construction went on simultaneously on three levels: the processing floor, mezzanine level and rooftop, where most of the refrigeration system resides. "It was one of the colder winters on record," CME's Hellinger recalls, but the field engineering came off without a hitch. "The mechanical, electrical and general trades worked together tremendously well."

Mother Nature dealt Cooper Farms a body blow in November 2002. Thanks to its personnel and supply partners, the company never left its feet and has come back stronger than before, with a facility to match.


For more information:

Craig Ralston, project developer, CME Corporation, 260-438-4421,

Rex Oliver, M-Tech International, 501-328-9178

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Plant Manager Eric Ludwig (left) and Mark Hellinger of CME Corp. review drawings for a planned 15,000-sq. ft. expansion to Cooper Farms’ cooked meats facility.

Cooper Farms at a glance

Virgil and Virginia Cooper began turkey farming in Ohio in 1938, building what would become the Cooper Group of Companies into a major supplier of live birds before handing over the corporate reins to their daughter and two sons. Like many regional players, the Coopers exited the processing side of the business in the early 1960s, reentering it in 1988 with the opening of a slaughter facility in St. Henry, OH. The cooked meats plant in Van Wert followed, as did a feed mill operation in Fort Recovery. Today, the vertically integrated firm generates $160 million in annual sales.

Before 2002's disaster, the Van Wert plant was producing 400,000 lbs. of cooked meat a week for supermarkets and foodservice customers. The new facility is outputting 650,000 lbs. a week, and a growing number of new products-the plant produces more than 150 SKUs-and continued interest in high protein, low carbohydrate diets are driving an expected plant expansion in the coming months.