Voters for The National Provisioner’s Plant of the Year award this year faced a serious challenge, as each of the nominees — all processing facilities visited for cover stories from June 2015 through May 2016 — made a very strong case for winning the annual award.

We thank all the nominees for access to their facilities, which allows us to stick closely to our mission to give our readers that unmatched, first-hand look into the operations of some of the most innovative and progressive processors in the business.

Nearly 2,300 readers responded, and when the polls closed, Butterball LLC’s Raeford, N.C., processing plant claimed victory.

Butterball was profiled in our January 2016 issue for its successful initiatives to expand its processing footprint in order to bring co-manufactured production in-house. Part of that expansion included the purchase and total renovation of the Raeford, N.C., facility. The National Provisioner was given an exclusive tour and invitation to the grand re-opening of the facility in November 2015.

In conjunction with the Plant of the Year award, Andy Hanacek, editor-in-chief of The National Provisioner, checked in with Butterball for an update as to what has changed at the plant since his last visit. Mike Bliss, vice president of Operations, offered his comments below:

Hanacek: When I visited the Raeford facility, construction was still underway on the RTE side of the operation — what’s the latest update there? What additional lines are operational since my visit late in November 2015?

Bliss: Currently we have three of the four slicing rooms equipped and have been slicing primarily foodservice products. Two of the rooms are running a paper interleave product, and the third room is running a variety of stack-slice products.

Hanacek: What is the next step for Raeford — what projects are on the docket now that the facility is nearing completion (or has been completed) on the renovation side?

Bliss: We have ordered our third oven and blast cell with plans to have this operational in the first quarter of 2017. In addition, we have ordered the equipment for the fourth slicing room. Our plan is to install dicing and bagging equipment in this room.

Hanacek: Has Butterball seen measurable growth or quality improvement in the product lines that it brought in house, specifically those being produced in Raeford?

Bliss: Growth within Butterball continues at a steady pace. The lines that we have installed in Raeford continue to set new productivity records when compared to those same operations at other locations. Anytime you get the opportunity to design and install a new line and replace old equipment, the opportunities to improve quality and food safety present themselves, so I would have to say yes we have seen an improvement in the quality of the product.

Hanacek: The cover story in January discussed Butterball’s success in bringing production of all its branded products in-house — since that time, what major initiatives/innovations has the company embarked upon or accomplished?

Bliss: I am sure you have seen or heard Butterball is now in the ham business, offering a premium line of branded deli ham products. Our Farm to Family by Butterball, no-antibiotics-ever product line has taken off and grows weekly. We currently offer a line of ground products in both a traditional tray and flexible package. We are looking to increase production of no-antibiotics-ever products, which will require not only increasing plant capacity, but more than likely an increase of grow out.

Hanacek: Although Raeford is the winner of the Plant of the Year, the Montgomery, Ill., facility also factored into the cover story’s theme quite significantly — what is next on the docket there?

Bliss: The Montgomery plant continues to come along nicely. Since we last spoke, we are now producing turkey bacon on both shifts and both lines. We are in the process of ramping up a deli ham slice line with plans to double that production by year end. There is still another five to seven million pounds of product that we plan to bring in house by the end of the year. I would not say we are wrapped up yet, but we are getting closer.  NP

Past Plant of the Year Winners

2015: Rastelli Foods, Swedesboro, N.J.

2014: Case Farms — Goldsboro, N.C.

2013: JBS USA — Grand Island, Neb.

2012: Universal Pasteurization Co. — Lincoln, Neb.