Born again

by Barbara Young,
There is little better than renewal in the world of business, especially with an ownership change bringing a promise of financial backing and operating autonomy — such is the case for the meat-processing branch of Kansas City-based Farmland Foods.
The processing arm of the Farmland Foods’ seven-state operation includes three kill-and-cut plants and six processing facilities occupying a combined 224 acres. The company’s hog-kill capacity represents, more or less, 7 percent of total U.S. capability.
Such company data may be impressive, but the production side of this Kansas City-based red-meat processing business is more than a manufacturing process defined by the company stats or the number of SKU items delivered daily to retail and foodservice customers.
For example, 6,123 represents a four-digit series of numbers whose factors are positive and negative, or odd and even.
For Farmland Foods and VA-based Smithfield Foods — its new parent company — the number 6,123 represents the amount of sweat equity from associates, who regularly produce millions of pounds of fabricated, branded, and case-ready fresh pork cuts; fresh, processed, and specialty sausage; bacon; and processed and smoked hams.
Leadership on the front end of the production process — from a staff veterinarian and vice president of on-farm food safety, a vice president of food safety, and a vice president of procurement —provides affirmation of the relevant quality levels of live animals and the subsequent raw meat material daily delivered to the company’s nine plants.
Jerry Leeper, currently in charge of Farmland Foods’ hog procurement program as vice president, joined the staff in 1995 as director of strategic planning and economic research, earning his current position in 2003. Leeper’s relationship with Farmland Industries began in 1986 through his job at Spark’s Companies Inc., providing general business consulting and economic advisory services, including international business development, strategic planning, risk management, and forecasting.
“As a branded product company, it’s more important to start with the best quality hogs raised in the best environment, with the utmost attention to animal welfare than cheap hog production,” Leeper says. “This is our focus. Although important, it’s not all about price but also relationships and responsibility.”
Angela Baysinger, vice president of on-farm food safety, is Leeper’s counterpart also dealing with livestock. At age 36, Baysinger’s farm animal experience, augmented by a stint in academia and the pharmaceutical industry, is a natural extension of her field of interest beginning as a third-grader in her home state of Missouri, where her parents raised hogs and row crops. As her peers busied themselves with activities of traditional appeal to 8-year-olds, Baysinger worked alongside her dad caring for their livestock, even helping to birth the babies thanks to her more conducive size for certain procedures. Baysinger, also spent time treating larger farm animals, including horses, before settling on the swine breed as a specialty. “Working with animals is hard on the body,” she explains. “The swine side is friendlier for people and animals. The transition was easy because I understand the health and disease in animals, which I find an interesting career. Getting into the food side allows me to use my nerd side.”
Baysinger’s affiliation with Farmland began in 2000 as a production veterinary through her swine consulting and management business, later joining the company full time. “I’m in charge of watching out for food safety from farm to plant,” she says, noting that Farmland’s process verification program (PVP) is a useful tool in that regard. As Baysinger explains, PVP involves traceability and all-natural animal raising components. “This allows independent producers to gain a chance to qualify for PVP,” she says. “There is no other way for them to get into the program.”
Once inside various plants, food safety falls under the purview of Katie Hanigan, vice president of food safety.
“We take a global approach in finding the best food-safety tools,” she says. “Plant audits are conducted internally and also by outside auditors. It’s a tough business, but we constantly raise the bar on ourselves.” Hanigan, who recently earned her MBA degree, joined Farmland Foods in 1981 as a laboratory technician, when the company was owned by Farmland Industries — the largest farmer-owned cooperative in North America enjoying spiraling growth and profits until market forces and other management challenges pushed it into bankruptcy in 2002.
“There were no cost reductions in food safety throughout the bankruptcy,” Hanigan emphasizes. “Now that we are part of Smithfield, we will be able to compare our program with our sister companies so that together we can raise the bar as a company.” Although Hanigan provides leadership for Farmland’s food-safety programs companywide, each plant operates with its own food-safety staff, and five of the nine have in-house laboratories for shelf-life studies, among other bacterial and pathogenic detection analyses. “We make sure our shelf-life statements stand up to the most rigorous standards,” Hanigan says. “We are exploring a number of options available for post-packaging pasteurization.”
Farmland Foods’ processing program comprises nine plants — in Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Utah, Massachusetts, and Kansas — the largest of which is in Crete, NE, under the supervision of Todd Gerken, who joined its staff as a line worker for only two years before fulfilling a six-year tour of duty in the U.S. Marine Corps. He returned to the company in 1996 accepting assignments at other Farmland plants until returning to Crete in 2000 as assistant plant manager. The 525,000-square-foot plant on 93 acres, built in 1975 followed by five major expansions, handles fabricated pork, bacon, smoked meats, and sausage. A Chop Shop is dedicated to processing lines for prepackaged offal and seasoned roasts.
“We were the second plant in the United States to use carbon dioxide [replacing the traditional animal stunning system],” Gerken boasts. “The cost is higher but the improvements in meat quality with a higher pH makes it worthwhile.”
Gerken says management is always looking ahead to position Farmland plants to top the previous year’s accomplishments. To that end, the Crete plant expects to acquire new bacon slicing machines with photo-vision technology for one thing. “We are getting into more high-tech [systems] with electronic technology, including robotics,” Gerken concludes.