Necessity prompts Michigan Turkey Producers to fill an abandoned plant with process innovations and state-of-the-art environmental controls

If necessity is the mother of invention, the Michigan Turkey Producers Co-op Inc. might consider calling their plant in Wyoming, Mich., "Mother."

It's no exaggeration to say that, if the plant hadn't come on line nine months after growers purchased an abandoned food-processing building, a half-century of commercial turkey breeding in western Michigan might well have ended. The suspension of turkey slaughter at Bil Mar Foods in nearby Zeeland, Mich., in January 1999 left area turkey farmers with few options for profitably bringing their birds to market. Turkey production in Michigan nose-dived in 1999 as farmers went into a subsistence mode, divvying up short-term contracts to supply processors in Iowa and southwestern Indiana.

By spring, the farmers had formed a cooperative to buy processing equipment from Bil Mar and purchase a one-time french fry plant in Wyoming. The task of renovating and upgrading the plant to a USDA facility began in August and, although the project technically was classified a renovation, little more than the shell of the former building was used. By March 2000, slaughter operations commenced, and within six weeks production had ramped up to 14,000 birds a day. This year the plant will process 4.5 million turkeys for the 16 co-op owners, or about 18,000 per shift.

Faith, hope and Dutch stubbornness kept the project on track, with 140 workers converging daily on the site to keep the conversion on schedule. The $25 million price tag for land acquisition, construction and equipment was $10 million less than a greenfield project would have cost. But time, not capital, was the overriding consideration, and the engineering challenge was to design and build a slaughter facility that meets the operating standards of a modern ready-to-eat meat processing plant.

Given turkeys' 19-week breeding period from egg to slaughter, construction had barely begun when the coop members hatched the first wave of turkeys to be processed. Those birds were two months old before any infrastructure work on the no-bid project began.

After removing abandoned potato-processing equipment, workers demolished walls and floors. "We gutted the interior down to dirt," notes Mike DeVries, plant engineer and a 10-year turkey processing veteran who became the first employee hired by Michigan Turkey Producers (MTP) in April 1999. "It was as close to greenfield as you can get." By Christmas, earthen floors remained, though the exterior walls and roof provided a shell that could be heated while contractors poured concrete throughout the Michigan winter.

Besides meeting their schedules, project engineers managed to incorporate a very sophisticated air-handling system and environmental controls that have come into play in the poultry industry in recent years. Those refinements take a back seat to the plant's most innovative feature: a first-of-its-kind carbon dioxide stunning system. CO2 stunning is used for poultry in Europe, but the gas's U.S. application had been limited mostly to hogs and chickens until the Michigan plant was commissioned March 7 last year.

"We went from a conversation without so much as a napkin sketch to running a stunning system in less than a year," recalls DeVries, co developer of the stunning system. The company credits the system with delivering a better quality bird for processing and making the kill room a much less onerous operation for both the livestock and the workers.

Helping to make the fast-track project a reality was Chuck Pharr, former chief engineer with Hudson Foods and a key player in the development of Hudson's Robards, Ky., poultry facility, which was Food Engineering's 1997 Food Plant of the Year. Now a principal in Vaughn, Coltrane, Pharr & Associates Inc., he was retained to identify a potential site for the turkey plant and then to manage the design and renovation projects.

"There haven't been any new turkey plants coming on line in over a decade, in part because per capita consumption has been fairly stagnant since the 1980s," observes Pharr, who is based in Springdale, Ark., coincidentally the home of poultry giant Tyson Foods. "We put in features that have been adopted by the industry in the last five years to provide for better pathogen control and generally control the plant environment better than what traditionally has been done."

"Although there were some excellent greenfield and brownfield facilities available on the market, there was always a missing link, be it a water issue or waste treatment problem," adds DeVries. "The Wyoming facility had the ammonia compressors we needed in place, there was ample refrigeration and freezer capacity, and there was a readily available work force nearby."

Built to higher standard
Based on project definition and mix decisions by a management team consisting of DeVries, operations chief Frank Koekkoek and consultants Roger Draft and Phil Weiner, Pharr designed a fresh-kill plant that emulates a ready-to-eat facility. Segregated lavatories and break rooms for employees in the kill room and those in the rest of the plant are maintained. The HVAC system works counterclockwise to product flow, with air moving from the pump & tumble room and packaging area to the cut & bone room, evisceration and finally the kill room.

"Every room has positive pressure and filtered air," with a complete turn every 12 minutes, DeVries explains. About 10 percent of the air is drawn from outside the plant. It passes through a series of three filters before mixing with filtered interior air pumped back from the kill room. Roof-mounted ammonia evaporation units dehumidify and chill the air to 45 degrees before returning it to the further processing area.

Stainless steel wall panels with a tongue-and-groove assembly were used throughout the building. The seamless system eliminates crevices where bacteria can hide and grow after washdown. Flashing at the base of the curb-mounted panels channel away washdown water. Stainless steel also was the material of choice for ceilings up to the chilling room, after which baked enamel is used.

Floor drains were engineered to minimize the potential for blockage and facilitate sanitation efforts. Stainless-steel piping with sanitary welds was used throughout. All 147 floor drains feature stainless-steel traps and strainers. Instead of a grate, a low-profile opening rings the drain, making it impossible for any particle larger than three inches to flow into the drain. The traps connect first to 4-in. pipes and then progressively larger pipes, ensuring that anything that enters the drain will eventually exit the system. "We haven't had a plugged drain in this facility," DeVries reports.

"A problem with older facilities is that, as the operation grows and the owners add on to them, you end up with infrastructure that is incompatible,' observes Pharr. The 175,125-sq.-ft. Wyoming facility can support significantly greater production, and it was designed with an eye toward further expansion.

The fire-rated corridor that snakes through the building and supports electrical conduit and other elements of the infrastructure typifies the building features that weren't even a consideration in decades past. "You find these corridors in further-processing facilities, but they are rare in raw processing," notes Pharr. "It gets back to control of your environment. If you're going to minimize cross-contamination, you have to segregate the different processing areas and provide access that eliminates the need to walk through other areas to get to them." Footbaths with chlorinated water at the room entrances provide additional assurance.

The evisceration room stands in stark contrast to most turkey plants. Instead of the U-shaped configurations that are common, MTP's evisceration room boasts a spacious, 220-ft. linear layout. Among the advantages is the accommodation of five in-line sanitation stations. Three wash cabinets and two scrubbers treat the carcasses before they move on to the chill room.

An innovation in the evisceration room is the fiberglass grate on which workers and inspectors stand. Typically water used at these stations runs across the room, possibly spreading pathogens. With the grates, the pitch of the floor carries effluent to the waste flume under the line.

The line operates in the range of 41 to 52 carcasses per minute. USDA dictates the upper limit for lines with two inspectors, according to DeVries.

Handle with care
The kill room's stunning system is the plant's most impressive processing advancement. "Roger (Draft) had the idea for carbon dioxide stunning, and we'd played with the technology at Bil Mar, but the consensus seven years ago was that we didn't understand it well enough to use it," says DeVries. Those hurdles have been overcome, and the MTP system will be offered commercially.

"We have integrated the system completely into our handling process so that the bird is not handled by anyone in its live state," he explains. Workers place the feet of live fowl in shackles as the birds are conveyed, eliminating any lifting. The birds are still unconscious when they reach the automatic throat slitter. The thrashing and flailing associated with electrical stunning that results in worker injuries and blown joints and ruptured blood vessels on the birds does not occur. Besides being a more humane process, the system yields a better-quality product, DeVries believes, and tames one of poultry processing's most onerous jobs.

"At some poultry plants, worker turnover in the kill room is measured in quarters," DeVries observes. He isn't referring to the 13-week variety but rather the hours between first break and lunch and so on. Panicked, pecking birds are enough to make the first day on the job also the last for the majority of workers. By contrast, MTP maintains a relatively clean kill room where the shackling function can be characterized as light duty. Blood splattering is imperceptible, and the bleeding process is completed in two minutes. "There are two people hanging who have been there since Day One," DeVries points out.

Overall turnover at the facility is running below 10 percent this year, well below industry norms. "Some plants have 100 percent turnover in their line workers each year," notes Pharr.

Principles of humane livestock handling begin in the holding area. Incoming turkeys remain caged in a quiet, darkened room that formerly was a potato shed. On a recent summer's day, industrial fans measuring 8 feet in diameter directed a cooling breeze toward the caged birds, a water mist adding an extra dollop of comfort. "We manage the birds' environment to keep them as comfortable and stress-free as possible," DeVries says.

Specially designed cages were fabricated to eliminate the need for any human handling from the time the birds are taken from the farm until their legs are shackled. A ceiling-mounted hoist gently transports the cages, each with a capacity of more than 30 birds, from flatbed trucks to a pallet indexing system that feeds the cages into the CO2 chamber. Each cage is conveyed through the chamber in about two minutes. When the cage exits, the cage door is automatically lifted while the cage is inclined, sliding the fowl into a bin. The barely conscious birds are quickly hand-fed to the conveyor serving the nearby shackling team.

From the kill room, carcasses pass through scald tanks to loosen their feathers before running through a series of automatic pickers. The next stop is evisceration, followed by a four-hour pass through four chillers that drop carcass temperature to 38 degrees.

The cut and bone room is the most labor-intensive area of the plant. Birds are broken down to whole muscle cuts and other pieces, with 2,000-lb. totes at the ends of the various lines accumulating the respective parts. The cone line for processing the white meat ergonomically adjusts depending on the cut being made as the breast half of the bird moves from station to station.

In some instances, management has opted to perform procedures manually rather than use machines. "We have some automation equipment we don't use because we felt hand production was superior," explains DeVries. "A person with eyes and emotions improves your quality. The validation of that is that we don't have trouble selling any product."

The ammonia refrigeration system left behind by the building's previous owners was a major selling point, though the eight compressors that run it will be augmented with two more in the near future. The system keeps processing areas at 45 degrees or colder, and the 3,000-pallet capacity freezer runs at -30 degrees.

Another desirable feature is waste treatment. After passing through a filtration unit on the grounds, effluent is discharged directly into the municipal system. Rendering is handled off site by a third party.

The plant was engineered to process twice the current volume of 18,000 birds per day, though there's no rush to reach that level. "The most efficient way to run the plant would be double shifts," acknowledges Harley Sietsema, one of the leading growers in the cooperative, "but we don't want to produce more than the market will bear. More than likely we'll ramp up a couple of percents a year until we hit 5 million birds."

Beyond commodity processing

Increased production is not a priority for MTP or any other turkey processor at this time. Unlike the turkey's smaller cousin, the broiler, demand is flat, so increased supply would only depress wholesale prices. More processors have exited turkey slaughter than entered the business in recent years, and more than a few turkey farmers have switched to broilers or other pursuits.

Turkey meat's low-fat content is both a blessing and a curse. Leanness plays to consumer trends toward healthier eating, but low fat also means less flavor. That's why processors are applying marinades and seasonings to make turkey more appealing and add value to their products.

About three-fifths of MTP's output leaves the plant as fresh product, the rest being frozen. By and large, the company is a commodity supplier, but that could change. MTP's Golden Legacy brand of whole muscle cuts should begin turning up in retail stores later this year, and the pump & tumble room can produce marinades, natural casing sausage links and other value-added products. Because of the way the plant was designed, the shift to a further-processing mode can be accomplished with virtually no changes to the plant.

It was necessary to bring the MTP plant on line quickly to ensure the owners' business viability. Along the way, the project team succeeded in inventing a first-of-its kind process and an operating environment that sets the standard for its category.