Zoned for Efficiency

By Barbara Young Editor-In-Chief

These days business success at the production level is directly linked to operating in the right zone — being on track with a potent labor-relations program foremost.
Meat and poultry plant workers make, process, or pack a variety of products by machine or by hand. Their duties includes operating a machine, preparing raw materials, removing finished products from machines, packing finished product, quality checks, minor machine repairs, and cleaning tools and work areas.
The modern meat-processing industry is a technological marvel whose origin dates back to 1865 with the opening of the Union Stock Yards in Chicago, the original home to the biggest and most successful U.S. meat packers – chief among them being Armour & Company founded in the mid 1800s. Armour’s slaughter capacity reached more than 1,200 hogs an hour in the 1930s. Its full-time workforce totaled 5,000, which doubled during the peak winter season to run two 16-hour shifts, six days a week.
In 1917, Forbes ranked Armour as the fourth largest U.S. industrial company based on assets followed by Swift and Company in fifth place. Three decades later, the magazine’s list ranked Swift as fifth and Armour in seventh place.
In those early days, working conditions at the plant level were arduous and unpleasant, however. The work environment included blood and steam in slaughtering departments, for one thing. Elsewhere workers endured damp and cold coolers, fast-paced and hectic loading dock assignments, and the ever-present possibility of injury from sharp knives or moving machinery. The average wage rate was 32.5 cents an hour.
Plants, designed as an intricate network of hundreds of inter-connected buildings handling slaughtering and disassembling of hogs, cattle, and sheep, produced various meat cuts and hundreds of by-products from animal feeds to tennis racquet strings to pharmaceuticals.
Chicago’s meat packing scene may have been grimy but it was essential to the city’s economic health, which included tourism funds. Visitors from around the world reportedly joined guided tours through the kill floors and other selected departments.
More than six decades later, a reshaped industry is defined by innovations, improvements, and developments supported by automation and mechanization.
Assembly lines began featuring cutting conveyors, automatic feeders and devices for skinning, slashing, and splitting carcasses after World War II. Automatic sausage stuffers, faster grinders and hot-dog feeders, and automatic wash and rinse machines came on the scene in the late ’60s.
Hamburgers caught on after the 1920s, leading to patty forming equipment two decades later.
Automation led to safety concerns for employees and the development of machines with safety features such as carcass splitters with safety switches. Environmental concerns also increased, forcing plant operators to reduce air and water pollution. Humane killing took center stage in the 1950s with the advent of stunners.
Although today’s plant interiors necessarily continue as cold, wet, and hot environments, ongoing workspace upgrades focus on ergonomics and worker comfort and safety.
IL-based OSI International Foods has invested more than $50 million in its Oakland, IA, facility in the past few years, for example. Premium Standard Farms spent $56 million at its Lundy’s plant in North Carolina. Since 1994, Kunzler & Company investments at its Juniata Packing subsidiary totals more than $8 million. These three are among the plants targeted as the “Magnificent 11” with extraordinary plant managers. The following stories pinpoint their achievements.
Editor’s Note:
Production facilities and their workforces stand at the heart of the business of meat and poultry processing. Critical areas of concern and attention include design and structure, equipment, and personnel. Benefits and wages, corporate reputation, business culture, and internal communication also top the agenda.
Ultimately, the ideal workplace inspires and promotes top-to-bottom efficiencies. That is to say that the chiefs and Indians work from the same policy manual. To that end, the quintessential job compensation package combines sweat equity with other benefits for a payoff of high yields in workers’ performance and their personal gratification.
I have personally visited a goodly number of meat, poultry, and seafood plants over the years. Each was as individual as human DNA, but my radar screen was set to detect work environments exuding evidences of such modern management tactics as teamwork. In the words of Peter Drucker, credited with the management-by-objective theory, smart business leaders methodically build a management team around them.
It is with that in mind that The NATIONAL PROVISIONER pays tribute to 11 representatives of processing excellence on the long list of high achievers concerning capital-expenditure programs, worker safety, food-safety initiatives, and modern labor/management techniques, among other progressive business moves.
Many more U.S. facilities and their workforces operate under above-average programs and are worthy of recognition. Moreover, many of them are part of this magazine’s archives of high achievers.
We applaud the good work of all.
Valuing Veal and Lamb
JOE RUCCO (and his production team)
Company DNA
Name: Catelli Brothers
Address: Collingswood, NJ
Parent Company: Catelli Brothers Inc.
Employees: 280
Products: Veal (cutlets, chops, stew meat, ground meat, breast with pocket, meatballs, and patties); seasoned and fresh boneless roasts; lamb chops and stew meat distributed as fresh primals, vacuum-packed primals, and case-ready products targeting retail and foodservice channels
Capacity: 800,000 pounds weekly
Catelli Brothers (Jim and Tony), with three separate plants in its home state of New Jersey, grew from a meat locker business in 1981 into the largest processor of milk-fed veal in the United States. This is the scene at the flagship plant in Collingswood on any given day.

The daily shift begins with USDA inspection of premises and review of pre-operational sanitation and hazard analysis critical control point procedures and checkpoints. Workers unload truckloads of veal and lamb carcasses, chilled 48 hours prior to fabrication. Processing begins after grade segregation and production staging. When cuts reach the packaging, boxing, labeling, and metal-detection steps, they have converted from carcass form by air saws and hand boning, among other techniques. Quality assurance technicians monitor products to validate custom specifications before shipment to warehouse storage for further assurance of proper chill-and-temperature levels.

“Once pallets are loaded onto trucks, off we go to service our customers,” Joe Rucco, vice president of operations, says. “But our work is still not done. We place temperature-control devices on our trucks so we can monitor for proper temperature to assure our customers total freshness.”
Shop Talk
Leadership is only as effective as the knowledge and know-how of the guide in charge. Information is a key. Joe Rucco, vice president of operations, keeps his wish list at hand, ever ready with a new game plan for business growth and employee efficiency. This is his current list:
•More modern equipment
•Higher measures of technical data from the industry for food safety
•Produce as many carcasses into case-ready products as possible
•In-line computers on production lines for workers
•Start a line of meal-ready products/meal kits
•Further enhanced training and knowledge support
•Smart work stations that calculate employee work performance

Poultry Business Rebirth
ERIC LUDWIG (and his production team)
Company DNA
Name: Cooper Farms Cooked Meats
Address: Van Wert, OH
Parent Company: Cooper Farms Inc. Employees: 140
Products: 120 different cooked turkey and chicken meats (deli and foodservice sectors)
Capacity: 500,000 pounds weekly
Cooper Farms is a re-born business that weathered the destruction of a tornado to operate on the same ground with a brand new facility.
Features include the following:
•Total separation of raw production and cooked, ready-to-eat areas
•Separate drain systems and the ability to sanitize individual drains
•Pasteurization system for added food-safety assurance •Radio frequency collection of real-time data for process, yield, and quality tracking
•Dedicated staff with the right attitude to embrace change, which is necessary to meet changing customer expectations
Shop Talk
Undoubtedly, Americans with few exceptions, recall Tuesday, September 11, 2001 with the utmost clarity. Eric Ludwig, general manager, at Cooper Farms’ Van Wert, OH, plant, encountered an up-close-and-personal tragedy the next year — thankfully without loss of life. Nonetheless, Sunday, November 10, 2002, is an indelible date for him and everybody associated with the cooked-meats plant in his charge. About 4 p.m. that Sunday, a monstrous tornado that destroyed parts of Ohio and Indiana leveled the plant. “The facility changed forever in a matter of five minutes,” Ludwig recalls.
Although the plant lay in ruins, the building had been empty of people.
“Any other day, the shifts would be staffed and the building would have been full of people,” he says. “Luckily, we never lost a life or a customer. They all stuck with us through our reopening.”
The second-most memorable day for the cooked-meats team was June 16, 2003. “That day we resumed production in a brand new, state-of-the art facility,” Ludwig concludes.
Big and bold
VAUGHN BLUM (and his production team)
Company DNA
Name: Excel-Schuyler
Address: Schuyler, NE Parent Company: Excel Corp., a Cargill Meat Solutions business Address: Minneapolis, MN
Employees: 2,100
Products: Boxed beef, ground beef, variety meats, beef by-products, and cured hide Capacity: 1.2 million cattle annually, 1.2 billion pounds of beef products
With 11 acres of operating space under one roof, Excel’s Schuyler, NE, beef plant handles a full line meat-processing program.

“We have always sought ideas of our employees about what they wanted in a plant design,” notes Vaughn Blum, general manager. “When we built a new slaughter hall in the late nineties, for example, employees wanted more space and more light. And that’s what we gave them.”

The integrated plant’s layout links beef processing, livestock pens, rendering, hides, and a wastewater facility that enables the recovery of methane gas as boiler fuel. Laboratories operate in a new technical services center and a nearby learning center offers education programs for children and adults.
Shop Talk
People may not live where they work, but for some that just means having two homes. That being the case, industrial operations and their labor pools have ties to a community other than where they reside. Vaughn Blum and his team consider it their responsibility to reach out to their workplace community. To that end, the Schuyler group staged a community meeting this year on Friday, February 27, and invited 40 townsfolk to air their thoughts.
“There were many areas of concern that we were aware of, such as a need for more space at the school,” Blum says. “Hopefully what will come out of the meeting will be some specific action steps where we can work more closely with the community to achieve common goals.”
Processing Boom
Dave Grazier (and his production team)
Company DNA
Name: Juniata Packing Co.
Address: Tyrone, PA
Parent Company: Kunzler & Co.
Address: Lancaster, PA
Employees: 200
Products: Bacon; luncheon meats including bologna, cooked salami, Lebanon bologna, meat loaves, and poultry based bologna; fresh sausage, smoked sausage, kielbasa, beef sticks and ring bologna; scrapple, pan pudding, polenta, and pork barbecue and chili toppings.
Expansion project: Currently adding 22,000 square feet to increase capacity for bacon from 250,000 pounds weekly to 500,000 pounds (June 1, 2004 completion date)
“The key to our company’s success can be summed up in two words: team work,” says Dave Grazier, vice president and general manager over two plants in Tyrone, PA. “Our people truly want to do a good job. This starts at the management level and filters down to production. Their team spirit and camaraderie exemplify that they not only enjoy working together but these friendships extend beyond the workplace.”

Juniata Packing comprises a manufacturing and packaging plant and another dedicated to sliced luncheon meats.

The manufacturing facility bears no resemblance to its 1937 origin, thanks to upgrades, expansions, and remodeling over the years at a cost of more than $8 million. Food safety is the guiding force behind the design throughout. Walls, incorporating “Arcoplast” material, inhibit bacteria harborages. Ready-to-eat packaging teams operate in a separate location from raw meat production.
Shop Talk
Looking back, Dave Grazier, a 20-year industry veteran and vice president and general manager of Juniata Packing Co., recalls one of the most memorable events in the company’s history: the recent groundbreaking for the new bacon expansion. It was a celebration of a company that has grown from 35 employees in 1984 to 200; and a weekly production average of 50,000 pounds to 625,000.
“We made no bacon in the beginning,” Grazier notes. Now 18 years later, the business produces 250,000 pounds a week.
Food Safety Compass
STEVE JAMES (and his production team)
Company DNA
Name: National Beef Address: Liberal, KS Parent Company: U.S. Premium Beef
Address: Kansas City, MO
Employees: 2,700
Slaughter Capacity: 6,000 head daily
Products: Chucks, ribs, loins, rounds, chilled offal, ground beef, and rendered product.
NBP’s food-safety program puts in on the cutting edge in terms of innovative new technology — most recently the incorporation of Activated lactoferrin six month’s ago at the Liberal facility as a new slaughter-floor weapon to fight pathogens.

This $3.5-billion firm with 6,500 employees companywide finds itself in a new ownership arrangement for the second time since its 1992 partnership purchase by John Miller and Tim Klein. Both mavericks bring deep industry ties and experience to their position, which now affiliates them with U.S. Premium Beef — their new business partner since this past year’s completed transaction. Their two processing plants in Kansas at Dodge City and Liberal handle more than 15,000 head of cattle daily.
Shop Talk
Management leadership is sorely challenged in these days of mergers, acquisitions, and new technology. Keeping a production team in top form for work requires the persuasive skill of a debater and unrestrained patience and sensitivity. Steve James, as a top NBP production manager, has led his team through several ownership changes without losing ground in product manufacturing.
In the early 1990s the ownership structure dramatically changed, James says. “This event provided an influx of capital, a clear sense of direction for the future, and a leadership mentality that became the lifeblood for our success. I am constantly amazed at the mystical cohesive culture that thrives in our facility. Over the years this has allowed us to continually achieve milestones and surpass goals that history said were unobtainable.”
Sow Right
JIM MCCONNELL (and his production team)
Company DNA
Name: Odom’s Tennessee Pride
Address: Little Rock, AR
Parent Company: Odom’s Tennessee Pride
Address: Madison, TN
Employees: 300
Products: Fresh breakfast sausage (1 million pounds weekly).
Odom’s a pork sow slaughter facility in Arkansas produces further-processed and cooked sausage in a 110,000-square-foot plant that has been improved and upgraded over the years at a cost of more than $15 million. Besides the plant, the site includes a wastewater treatment facility and animal holding pens capable of handling about 450 sows with an average weight of 560 pounds.

“Our philosophy is to lead the industry with technology to meet the needs of our customers and all governmental regulations,” Jim McConnell, plant manager, explains. “That means we strive to be one step ahead of any future issues to protect our people, customers, and the positive reputation of our products. We work closely with all organizations including our competition to improve the meat business, especially concerning food safety and humane treatment of our livestock and to protect the safety of our associates.”
Shop Talk
Leaders seek their own rewards, to be sure, for what better measure of success is there than when a team pulls off a spectacular feat directly attributable to its leadership. As plant manager over a team of 15 assistants with 89 years of industry service between them and a processing-line team of 275, Jim McConnell can relate to the challenges of leadership. He also knows that challenges can breed success.
“We finished the past year with an outstanding safety record,” he reports. “We met out annual goals, clocked more than one-million hours without a lost-time injury, and will be recognized by the American Meat Institute for our record.”
There is more to the thrill of victory than the accomplishment as McConnell explains. “We purchased safety jackets for all our associates,” he says. “To see their faces really made me feel that all of our efforts are worth it.”
Production Village
Dan Milovanovic (and his production team)
Oakland Foods LLC
Company DNA
Name: Oakland Foods LLC
Address: Oakland, IA Parent Company: OSI Group LLC
Address: Aurora, IL
Employees: 580 (two production shifts, one for sanitation)
Products: Course ground and emulsified hot dogs and sausages, beef steakette; corned beef patty; fully cooked bacon in a variety of flavors; fully cooked sausage patties and links; fully cooked hamburger patties and links; meatballs and meatloaf; and Salisbury steaks in a variety of flavors.
The 300,000-square-foot manufacturing facility on more than 90 acres — 40 of which house water treatment lagoons —is deceptively different than other meat processing plants. It’s a manufacturing condominium housing separate plants under one roof, although operating under the same name. The cost of upgrades over the years at the 7-year-old OSI International Foods division facility totals more than $50 million.

“The plant supports our dedication to the foodservice industry with a focus on food safety while also maintaining production flexibility and efficiency,” explains Daniel Milovanovic, general manager, who was a member of the scouting party that found the “dream” plant to address overcapacity issues. “The plant and equipment are designed to provide flexibility of operations enabling us to produce numerous SKUs while still providing the cost benefits associated with production efficiencies.”
Shop Talk
Life on the plant floor is anything but static. When surprise comes to call, managers must answer with calm and reason. Consider this account of how Dan Milovanovic handled a dicey situation:
“One of our newest customers launched a new product rollout that required us to work on Sunday, which would not have been an issue except that it was Mother’s Day. Even though only a small portion of the workforce was needed, this was not a welcomed job. A week before the day, I explained the bind our customer was in and how we needed to step up to meet that need. The entire department volunteered and everybody showed up on Mother’s Day. As a special thank-you, I bought, delivered, and served lunch to each manager and production team member working that day. We all had a very nice Mother’s Day lunch. This is what I call a team environment.”
Pork Production Prowess
JERE NULL (and his production team)
Company DNA
Name: Premium Standard Farms’ Clinton Facility Address: Clinton, NC Parent Company: Premium Standard Farms, part of NY-based ContiGroup Companies Address: Kansas City, MO. Employees: 1,250, plus 330 farm employees Products: Fresh cuts include loins, picnics, hams, and bellies for domestic and export sales. Further-processed selections include sliced bacon, microwave bacon, sausage, smoked meats, spiral hams, lard rendering, and dry salt meats. Capacity: Slaughter 9,800 hogs per shift daily; bone 250,000 pounds daily; skin 140,000 pounds bellies daily
Nearly three years later and after $56 million in capital expenditures, Premium Standard Farms has converted its Lundy Packing Co. acquisition into a 21st century pork- processing marvel under the supervision of Jere Null, vice p resident and general manager.

“We have invested both money and energy to ensure that product flow, employee flow, and facility integrity are maximized,” Null explains. “We segregated employee welfare facilities, in including parking lots, entrances, locker rooms, and cafeterias to maximize food safety by eliminating co-mingling of slaughter and further-processing employees.”

On the equipment side, Nell reports investment in equipment washes, room sanitizers, clean-in-place systems, and air-handling equipment.

“We also studied the product flows and relocated entire operations to improve our cycle times and efficiencies,” Null adds. “Many areas of our plant were constructed in the past three years, including our cut floor, ready-to-eat areas, and distribution department. Having a consistent supply of high-quality raw material from our integrated farms helps us maximize the return on these investments.”
Shop Talk
Understanding and buying into matters related to labor relations is a critical bridge to plant management success, to be sure. Of equal importance to Jere Null is the ability to articulate the strategies yielding success for him and his team.
“First, thanks to the quality of people there is a ’can-do’ attitude in this plant backed by thoughtful planning and a lot of hard work,” he says. “Our integration system of live-hog production, including genetic control, feed control, and an emphasis on animal welfare gives us a quality advantage that translates into more consistent and more flavorful pork for our customers.”
The final competitive edge comes from the cutting and boning facilities, which Null characterizes as “unrivaled thanks to investment.” Special tools include state-of-the art animal handling and CO2 systems, a rapid carcass chilling system, automatic loin pullers, automatic butt pullers, new generation vacuum packaging equipment, and “superior” air-handling technology.
“Our fresh meat facilities are among the industry’s elite,” Null concludes.
Global Pork Business
LARRY JOHNSON (and his production team)
Company DNA
Name: Smithfield Packing Co.
Address: Tar Heel, NC
Parent: Smithfield Packing Co., div. of Smithfield Foods
Address: Smithfield, VA Employees: 5,300
Case-ready (lean ground pork, loin chops, self-basting boneless loin chops, frozen pork feet, and split chop thin) Fresh meat (pork shoulder picnics, light bone-in pork loin, vac pac pork loin, pork shoulder butts, and bellies) Converted products (Golden Delicious chilled boneless back style pork loin 4/5 rib break, center cut boneless pork loin strap-off, Lean Generation enhanced strap-off boneless pork loins) Capacity: 32,000 hogs daily
The Smithfield Packing Co.’s multi-level pre-cast and insulated panel building in rural North Carolina operates like a small city, producing its own drinking water from a radio-operated well field for one thing. The complex is designed to also generate 24 megawatts of power and 13,000 tons of refrigeration energy. The wastewater treatment plant produces enough biogas to fuel two boilers, representing 10 percent of fuel use. The site includes a 7,000 square-foot medical center staffed by two physicians supported by a team of 12 medical associates, 12 exam rooms, and a pharmacy with a drive-thru component. A modern, fully automated rendering facility produces 700,000 pounds of meal and refined grease daily.
Shop Talk
With oversight responsibilities for pork operation on 160 acres adjacent to Cape Fear River in the middle of Bladen County, NC, Larry Johnson’s duties are not so different from those of a small town mayor’s, but in an industrial setting. As vice president, Johnson heads the team at the plant, which operates with two production shifts and a third sanitation shift, five days a week, and up to 12 additional Saturdays at full production. Blending, case- ready, and marinating departments operate on Saturdays and Sundays as needed. Shipping and distribution, maintenance, and waster-water operations follow a 24/7 schedule. The plant currently is on track in its pursuit of ISO 14001(Environmental Management System) credentials.
“We have engaged the entire employee population in this effort by providing training, and encouraging plant-wide participation,” Johnson reports. “We have recently been audited and recommendations for certifications have been submitted and we are optimistic that the plant will be certified.”
Case-Ready Stronghold
RAY HANKES (and his production team)

Company DNA
Name: Tyson Fresh Meats Case Ready Plant
Address: Goodlettsville, TN
Parent Company: Tyson Foods Inc.
Address: Springdale, AR
Employees: 1,750
Products: 100 case-ready beef products, 35 pork products, and 20 different kinds of case-ready ground beef in modified atmosphere packaging
Renovating and revamping the 430,000-square-foot plant into a modern case-ready production facility was accomplished through teamwork at Tyson’s Goodlettsville facility, previously owned by Oscar Mayer.

“The engineering group did a fantastic job designing the plant,” notes Ray Hankes, plant manager. “We took the best equipment from around the world and married it into well designed integrated systems. Our ability to randomly run various SKUs of the same footprint through the weigh-price labelers allows us to be very efficient and our product moves through the system rapidly. We have a diverse team (fourteen different languages) that has come together as a focused production unit to successfully meet our customers’ needs.”
Shop Talk
Anybody in charge of anything, whether a production plant, people, athletes, military troops, or children, should be ready to recite Murphy’s Law on demand: If anything can go wrong, it will.
Ray Hankes shares an experience that came up the day production began at the Tyson case-ready plant in Goodlettsville, TN, where he is plant manager.
Undoubtedly the first day we opened the plant will always be etched in my mind. We had to have a final USDA walkthrough and were set to start production. The USDA walkthrough went well with a few minor issues. We started production at 8 a.m. and ran for 45 minutes and then all the conveyors shut off. After an hour of investigation, we got them going again. But that first day we mad 69 cases of product that was sold to our team members. We now can produce 69 cases per minute.