Tanimura & Antle hit pay dirt when it located its newest prepared-salad plant in the Hoosier state.

Ready-to-eat salad is conveyed to checkweighers. Heat is the enemy of cut lettuce, and maintaining strict temperature tolerances during packaging is a critical part of the process. Source: The Austin Co.
New-product flexibility is easiest to design in greenfield plants, but a well-planned retrofit can fill the bill, as well.

Devising new products wasn’t a criterion when agents for Tanimura & Antle Inc. (T&A) were scouting locations for a prepared-salad plant in the Great Lakes region. The country’s largest independent grower of lettuce was simply continuing its eastward expansion over the last four years, beginning with a processing facility in Montreal and an Atlanta area site two years ago. To reach cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Indianapolis, another plant was needed, ideally in Illinois or Indiana.

“Well over half of our food industry clients want to start out with an existing site,” notes Don Schjeldahl, a member of the facilities location group at Cleveland’s Austin Co. T&A retained Austin two years ago to find the best available option for its Midwestern operations. After evaluating economic development incentives and labor pool availability in competing areas, Schjeldahl recommended a former Procter & Gamble Sunny Delight plant in Plymouth, Ind.

Juice processing equipment still was being removed when renovation began on the Plymouth facility in January 2002. By August, bagged salad was being shipped to supermarkets and foodservice accounts in a distribution zone that now stretches as far East as Maryland. More than market area has been stretched in the last year: while SKU counts numbered 300 initially, they now are approaching 1,000, including many items unique to Plymouth for T&A.

“Fresh-cut fruits and vegetables were unchartered waters for the company,” notes Plant Manager Dan Correll. “Today, it’s growing by leaps and bounds.” It’s also a reflection of the plant’s flexibility. Vegetable mixes for stir fry, trays of sliced tomatoes and custom-cut pineapples and melons weren’t on T&A’s radar when the facility opened. “It took about two months, and we were producing,” Correll says, and the options are proliferating, “depending on what our customers’ customers want.”

When commercial orders started shipping in August 2002, 85 employees were on staff. A year later, the staff numbered 300, and T&A is hunkering down for a long-term engagement in the Indiana community.

Workers remove culls from heads of lettuce as they enter the processing area. Cutting, cleaning, drying and bagging takes seven minutes. Source: The Austin Co.

The optimum fit

Transportation was a key criterion in evaluating potential sites for T&A’s sixth processing facility. A refrigerated express train leaves California’s Central Valley each day, with guaranteed arrival in Harvey, Ill., in about the same time as a truck can make the trip but at half the shipping cost. The ideal location would give T&A the option to tap into that rail service and maintain the same farm field-to-customer timetable that leaves 13 days until the sell-by date by the time product reaches the store.

“The issue of refrigerated rail cars was an intriguing possibility,” recalls Frank Spano, another Austin location expert, but rail accessibility was by no means the only consideration. Labor availability and cost were concerns, and intensive analysis of worker productivity, wage and benefit costs and other labor issues was conducted in the most promising locations.

“It’s not enough to find a building and community that meet today’s needs,” Schjeldahl says. “In the food industry, having a steady flow of people to draw from is critical to long-term success.”

A food-compatible building with a refrigeration system was another criterion. Spano and Schjeldahl focused on Plymouth and LaSalle-Peru, Ill., as the best potential sites and began investigating state and local economic incentives. When the Sunny Delight plant came onto the market, “We thought it was too good to be true,” recalls Schjeldahl. Though the 193,000 sq. ft. facility was larger than T&A management had in mind, it fit the bill in every other respect. By Thanksgiving 2001, the purchase had been completed.

Construction of a 13,000 sq. ft. produce-receiving area, new flooring in the 22,000 sq. ft. processing area and renovation of office space were the main items of business in the retrofit. Vegetable processing requires a wet environment, and epoxy-coated concrete flooring that slopes to an enhanced drain system was installed. A suspended ceiling was connected to the bar joist structure. The metal ceiling is insulated with 4 inches of insulation in the processing area. Walls have a 3-inch urethane core.

“From a structural engineering standpoint, designing a walkable ceiling was one of the trickiest aspects of the project,” according to Ron Frattare, senior project manager at Austin.

Building acquisition and renovation were budgeted at $6 million. Sufficient economies were achieved to allow a major upgrade to the ammonia refrigeration system. Two evaporative condensers replaced a cooling tower, increasing efficiency and helping boost capacity to double the initial demand.

Heat is the enemy of cut lettuce, and freezing turns the leaves translucent. Strict temperature control is maintained in the processing area and in the finished goods coolers. The target is 35˚F, and a 2˚ variation triggers alarms. The same target temperature applies to process water, with chlorine level and pH the other critical controls. A chlorine and citric acid system was part of the plant upgrade, with ProMinent Fluid Controls regulating their addition if pH needs to be raised.

T&A retained Heinzen Manufacturing Inc. to serve as process engineers. Heinzen fabricated some of the equipment and integrated the rest, from raw material conveying through packaging. The Gilroy, Calif. firm works with several fresh-cut produce suppliers and has particular expertise in modified atmosphere packaging equipment. Processing lines were engineered so that equipment is elevated above the floor, facilitating nightly cleaning and sanitizing routines.

Spinach, carrots and cabbage are shredded or chopped along with lettuce in Urschel Translicers before undergoing a triple wash system. Lettuce emerges from dewatering conveyors, is combined with red lettuce and shredded carrots and is transported to centrifugal dryers before being fed to Hayssen combination scales. It then fills in one of three Barry-Wehmiller form/fill/seal machines, where nitrogen is injected before sealing.

“Packaging machine operators are the heart of the operation,” T&A’s Correll says. “They have to be a little mechanical and very knowledgeable about the system to optimize machine speed. If they run too slow, the bags get hot and cause product to deteriorate. If they run too fast, a poor package seal results.”

Cold and wet operating conditions create a harsh work environment. After consulting with a professional trainer, T&A supervisors devised a 10-minute warm-up regimen that has been successful in reducing work injuries as well as turnover.

Washed lettuce is placed into plastic barrels, after which it will be transported to centrifugal dryers (left) prior to packaging. Source: The Austin Co.

Vigilant Inspection

A dozen staff members worked at the plant when it produced Sunny Delight, including Mike Busart, manager of the plant’s 10-person QA department. His team’s work begins with inspection of incoming produce and continues through water-content monitoring, package weight verification, finished goods sampling and microbial swab testing. A satellite lab on the processing floor is a monitoring refinement that yields rapid test results.

Listeria, E. coli and Salmonella all are potential contaminants in produce, and QA personnel diligently test contact surfaces and food from the time it arrives. “We started this facility correctly, spending a great deal of time training the employees and safeguarding the product,” says Correll. “The rule is, ‘When in doubt, throw it out.’”

Custom cutting of fruits and stir-fry assortments is performed manually, but automated equipment is being designed to perform some of that new-product work as demand builds.

The facility is one of a handful of vegetable processing plants in the country to attain Level I status in the USDA’s voluntary Qualified Through Verification program, according to Busart. Fast turnover helps keep bacterial counts low: from the time produce enters the processing area until it goes into the finished goods area, only seven minutes elapses.

Antimicrobial footbaths, hands-free washroom dispensers and sensor-activated doors in the processing area are part of the sanitation strategy, he says. Employee indoctrination focuses on personal hygiene and blood-borne pathogens, and those messages are reinforced at monthly town-hall style meetings that includes top managers, “to show how important these issues are,” says Correll.

Traceability is enhanced because the lettuce comes from T&A’s own fields. Electronic records can pinpoint the crew that cut the heads and the harvest dates. Periodic mock recalls demonstrate the ability to isolate suspected product in less than two hours. “We can trace the product all the way back to the field, and we have good cooperation from customers in tracking product after it leaves,” says Correll. “Bottom line, it’s consumer protection, and we’re all for that.”

As the prepared salad business matures, processors without a direct pipeline to the farm may find themselves vulnerable to commodity pricing swings. That won’t be an issue in Plymouth. There is ample space in the processing area for two additional lines, plus more than enough dry storage space to add cooler capacity if and when it’s needed. With a little luck and a lot of legwork, the site selection process uncovered a facility that will fill T&A’s growth needs in the Midwest for years to come.
For more information:
Don Schjeldahl, the Austin Co., 440-544-2617, flg@theaustin.com
Alan Heinzen, Heinzen Manufacturing Inc., 408-842-7233