Hi-Tech treasure Trove

By Bryan Salvage, Senior Editor
Meadowbrook Farms Cooperative’s new pork-packing plant takes automation to the next level.
Advanced automation is important to incorporate into pork-packing plants not only for meeting today’s demands for quality and consistency — but also to ensure future growth. For example, Belleville, IL-based Meadowbrook Farms Cooperative’s new 100,000 square-foot pork processing plant in nearby Rantoul, IL, opened on January 19, 2004, and is designed to process 3,600 head a day. Equally important, it is designed to “move fast” to meet future customer demands.
“The basis of our design was…design the plant for today, but build in capacities for the future,” says Jim Altemus, vice president of marketing and communications. “Everything we need to be ISO 9000-certified is in place so when the dynamics of the European market changes we could be one of the first companies tapping on their door saying ‘our plant is not only ISO 9000 — but it is designed as a European plant.”
Meadowbrook is a closed cooperative formed by 200 farmers primarily located in Illinois, but also in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Indiana. The company’s concept is to preserve the right to be a hog producer and have more control over the entire process from selecting the genetics to moving product into the marketplace. It serves five markets: export, further processed, commodity, retail branded, and foodservice.
“Over time, unmet needs have developed in each of these five markets resulting from the livestock industry vertically integrating and growing larger,” Altemus says. “There was a need for a co-op like Meadowbrook that has state-of-the-art technology.”
Automation showcase
Baby back ribs, full loins, and tenderloins are among the products labeled under the Meadowbrook brand. Bellies are co-packed, and bacon is sold to both retail and foodservice markets. Meadowbrook also processes breakfast links, bratwurst, Italian, and Polish sausage as either private-label or under the Meadowbrook label.
The Facility Group, a design/build/architectural engineering/construction management company based in Smyrna, GA, built the new Rantoul plant. Several of its executives are very impressed with the technology in place at this facility.
“They installed a [Temple Grandin-designed] center-track restrainer, and hogs are being stuck and shackled horizontally for bleeding,” says Ed Wright, senior process planner, The Facility Group. “They also installed a new technology for scalding, which eliminates the ‘community bath’ that’s most prevalent in the hog-processing industry. There’s no cross-contamination in this process, and Meadowbrook is the only pork plant in the United States using this technology.”
This steam condensation scald process from Stork is indeed unique. Flames produced by natural gas jets and water simultaneously eject to produce 180Þ F steam as the carcass passes through the process tunnel. As the carcass moves along, it rotates on the gambrel and is exposed to four of these processes, Altemus explains.
“USDA inspectors from Day One were marveling at the quality of this process,” he adds. “They said they’ve never seen a carcass this clean or good looking. It prevents cross-contamination, and it also preserves and produces a very good hide, which is one of the products we sell.”
Computerized systems play a major role at the new plant, and they begin as the live hogs are unloaded from trailers. This high-tech system is set up so traceability could go back to the farm—should the marketplace someday request or demand it in the future.
“We could produce a bar-code scanner a consumer could hold in the supermarket that would produce a tape that would say ‘The two pork chops you’re holding in your hands were made from hogs raised on the Bob Evans farm in Kane Country, IL. Bob and his family have been raising hogs for thirty-four years. The hogs were fed this kid of feed, and were given these kinds of medications at these intervals. The pork chops were processed on this date.’”
Once live animals arrive at the plant, they rest for two hours before being led into the plant for electrical stunning. Computerized technology-gathering starts immediately upon the animal’s death with the carcass hot weight prior to dehairing. The Rantoul plant also uses AutoFom technology. (See “Embracing Technology” feature in this issue for more details.).
“We’re a cooperative that rewards the farmer for producing superior quality as defined by consumer preferences,” Altemus says. “As soon as we begin gathering data, we feed that back to our member telling him why certain hogs were valued higher, and why he got paid by hog and not as an average. This process starts on the kill side with the AutoFom scan.”
When asked about automaton highlights in the fabrication area, Altemus cites the LeBlanc loin puller.
“A camera looks at every loin, judges the amount of fat, and separates the loin from the back fat at whatever thickness of fat you program into the machine,” Wright says.
“The AutoFom begins the computer trail of information going through the process, but that same information is hooked into computers at key points in the production line,” Altemus says. “Our scales for the loins, hams, and bellies all enter data into the system. By the time the loin gets pulled, the computer already has received information basically saying here is what to expect. So when the loin goes through, it’s trimmed properly to the specs set, and the quality of the meat is preserved.”
Another plant innovation is its new soft chill, blast-chill freezer designed by a professor at the University of Illinois, which rapidly lowers the internal carcass temperature. After the carcass goes through dehairing, inspection, hand trimming for hairs, and moves to the offal line, it goes into an acid rinse cabinet before entering the blast-chill freezer that’s 15 below zero with a 45 mph wind chill. This rapidly lowers the internal temperature before the carcass moves into the holding cooler.
Worker-friendly technology
Further automation helps reduce some of the repetitive motion on the slaughter line, Wright says.
“A lot of people were pulling leaf lard by hand,” he adds. “Now they have either semi-automatic or automatic leaf-lard pullers. And most plants still split their hogs manually. If the hog isn’t split down the center of the vertical column, you leave meat on the one side of the feather bones and that’s loss of yield.”
Pork processors in the United States have been slow to adopt technology, says Chris Palumbo, business unit manager, Food Group, The Facility Group.
“In some cases, the economics hasn’t caught up with the technology yet,” he says. “And most U.S companies are reluctant to be the first to engage a new technology.”
Another challenge in adopting new technology is U.S. processors kill at high chain speeds not matched anywhere else in the world, Wright says. “A lot of this technology is developed in Europe, and their chain speeds are one-third the speed of ours,” he adds.
If variability of hogs can be eliminated in the future, robotics can play a larger role in the pork industry.
“By installing more robots onto a line and eliminating human hands in the process, all we can do is enhance the bacteriological quality of the carcass surface,” Wright says. NP