Technology and Teamwork

by Barbara Young
Osceola Foods’ processing philosophy is built on modern operating strategies bolstered by a spirit of cooperation.
Osceola, IA — county seat of Clark County since 1851 when its rural population maxed out at 548 people — is no longer home primarily to small farms. Although the area retains its agriculture roots with large farm operations, jobs in this town —named for a Seminole Indian Chief — mostly come from the manufacturing realm.
Operating with a 700-member team responsible for producing 120 million pounds of pork products annually for shipment to retail and foodservice customers nationwide, Osceola Foods, a wholly owned subsidiary of Austin, MN-based Hormel Foods, is a major employer of area residents.
Its facility, located on a 136-acre plot, is shaped for manufacturing efficiency and employee comfort, but product and employee safety are also critical concerns regarding structural and architectural design. Tight security is the order of the day in Osceola, where the Hormel Foods’ further-processing division’s controlled employee entrance is manned on a 24-hour, seven-day-a week schedule under the authority of an outside security force.
“We stepped up our efforts to protect not only the assets of the company, but also our team members in terms of facility security,” affirms Mark Coffey, plant manager, emphasizing that the September 11 tragedy woke everybody up to the importance of facility security. “We installed a full-body turnstile with computerized scan-card access,” he explains. “Those seeking entrance without a scan card must supply particular information so the guard on duty can search the computer to confirm identification.”
Coffey, plant manager since 2000, also highlights the division’s “outstanding” employee safety record supported most recently by 2003 statistics showing the plants lost-time injury and illness rate at 31 times better than the industry average, netting the eighth consecutive Hormel Foods safety excellence award. The glory belongs to team members on safety and ergonomics committees who helped the plant achieve such “excellent” results.
“From the beginning, one of our founding principles was the teamwork philosophy, which we have used to create flexible teams emphasizing job rotation, open communication and multiple skilled team members,” Coffey says.
Emphasizing the plant’s “competitive wage and benefit package,” Coffey outlines a plan to rival progressive employee offerings in any of the nation’s businesses. Besides a medical plan, including dental, vision and prescription drugs, the company, offers a generous paid vacation program and matching 401(k) plan. A pay-for-performance employee bonus program aligns the company’s goals with plant performance.
The result is a quid-pro-quo system exemplified by steady production tonnage increases since 1996. Osceola Foods — a dedicated further-processing plant — began processing on a limited basis in a remodeled 119,000-square-foot facility. By April of the following year, production went to full capacity in a newly configured facility totaling 567,000 square feet of space — reflecting a new addition — including an on-site distribution center managed and operated by Power Logistics in a third-party capacity.
The plant operates all year, around-the-clock with two eight-hour daily shifts for ham manufacturing, followed by a third-shift sanitation team. The bacon process operates on two seven-days-a-week shifts. “We have unique staffing arrangements that allow us to do that,” says Coffey, explaining the shift breakdown as follows: a Monday through Thursday team; a Friday, Saturday and Sunday weekend team; and a Monday through Friday night shift. “The only idle time is at night Saturday and Sunday,” he adds. The key to running a plant around-the-clock is good communication and planning. To that end Osceola Foods’ management team is ahead of unforeseen pitfalls. A backlog of in-process raw materials ensures that product is always available to offset such forces as inclement weather that can delay production flow.
Three product lines at the all-pork processing plant include ham, bacon and Consumer Ready® fresh pork, all of which carry the Hormel Foods brand name. The customer base is evenly split between foodservice and retail channels.
“The brine manufacturing area is the heart and soul of a smoked meats plant because it is where we are establishing flavor profiles and starting the curing process,” Coffey explains. “Controlling the amount of sodium nitrite and sodium erythorbate is part of our plant’s HACCP plans. We have many controls in place to ensure our recipes are formulated correctly every time.”
Notable food-safety features in the plant’s design include anti-microbial agents built into the concrete floor, stainless steel floor curbs and drains, and low ceilings with no protruding pipes for ease of cleaning. Packaged product is transported by conveyor through openings in walls to be boxed and palletized, creating a separation between packaging and palletizing areas. Duct socks diffuse the air to control drafts for employee comfort in line witb to company ergonomic philosophies.
Technology is the foundation of the operation. Each trolley carries a radio frequency chip for collecting data as its product load travels throughout the plant from one processing step to another. “Coming out of the smokehouse, you get smokehouse data real time,” explains Bill Snyder, vice president of operations — refrigerated foods. “Electronic data collection is an important management tool.”
Each forklift has a radio frequency display facilitating inventory tracking accomplished by scanning product each time it moves from place to place — that translates into real-time data in process. “This plant is paperless, but we know electronically at any point in time how much raw material is available and where it is at each stage of the process,” Snyder adds. “That information is transmitted to the mainframe by radio frequency.”
The bacon family
Bacon — produced at an annual rate of 34 million pounds — is derived from fresh pork bellies. Quality begins with the right animal, to be sure. “We pay a premium on a grade-and-yield basis when we buy hogs,” explains Snyder. “We were the first company to buy that way because we want the highest quality hog to get the leanest bacon.”
After the injecting and curing processes establish the flavor profile, bellies are combed and hung for transport to smokehouses. Bellies are blocked on a mechanical press and chilled in preparation of the slicing step. “We produce all the premium wide-shingled bacon for our foodservice sales team,” Coffey reports. Distinctive flavors include applewood smoked and maple black pepper.
“In our precooked bacon operation, product is cooked to achieve a particular level of water activity and doneness and sorted to separate strips not meeting quality specifications,” Coffey says. These are shipped to a sister facility that produces bacon bits. Coffey points out that consumer-friendly fully cooked bacon packaging features include reclosable zippers and pre-printed film that provide essential product information.
The chop shop
Osceola Foods annually produces 10 million pounds of Consumer Ready® fresh pork. Fresh pork loins are injected, tempered, sliced, and sorted by individual chop specifications.
Pointing out that fresh pork has five-to-seven days of shelf life, Coffey explains how the Osceola Foods’ process provides additional shelf life. “We remove the oxygen and back flush the package with another combination of gases to extend the existing shelf life to twenty-eight days,” Coffey says. “Because of the combination of gases we add, product color is also improved.”
These case-ready products arrive at the retailer wrapped in two layers of film. “We give our customers more flexibility by running tray-cut chops through our over-wrap process, which removes the oxygen, thus significantly increasing the product shelf life,” Coffey concludes.
The traditional method of making pork chops is with a band saw, which has two inherent problems — fatigue and employee safety. “To address these issues, we created a loin saw that is a Hormel-Foods-designed piece of equipment that allows us to cut the loin and segregate it into different types of chops,” Coffey says. “The machine does the work instead of the person. This automatic loin saw has improved employee safety and product quality.”
The technological sophistication of the computer-assisted system delivers more than accuracy. “Without this equipment, our employees would have to work near a saw blade all day long facing ergonomic fatigue and safety challenges,” Coffey explains. “The automatic loin saw is a classic example of investing in capital to improve the ergonomics and safety of a task.”
The ham family
Ham is Osceola Foods’ primary product line, totaling 80 million pounds annually. Other Hormel Foods plants supply boneless ham meat that undergoes a curing and injecting process at Osceola, which produces approximately 250 different kinds of ham, including Cure 81® ham for retail markets and Bread Ready® presliced meats for foodservice customers.
“We weigh raw material to a known starting weight and then pass it through an injector to begin the curing process to produce any type of ham — natural juices, ham and water, and water added,” Coffey explains.
Injected cured ham meat is formed using a cotton stockinette, fibrous, or plastic casing in the ham-stuffing department. Some casings are presmoked and some are not. Hams are stuffed by machine and by hand. Manual labor is used for premium products, calling for exact placement of ham muscle within the stockinette. When exact placement is not required, product is stuffed by machine. The plant produces ham stuffed into a slicing log or individual pieces.
The heartbeat of the plant is in the smokehouse area because product must be fully cooked. The plant’s HACCP program requires precise monitoring of temperatures for all products cooked in the ovens.
“A lot of effort goes into making sure our products reach their fully cooked status,” Coffey concludes. “We have a great team of employees and we’re very proud of our results.”