Brimming With Potential
By Barbara Young, Editor-In-Chief
photos by Vito Palmisano
Smithfield Packing Company’s case-ready program is progressing, especially at its Tar Heel facility where marinade pork production volume is increasing.
Phil Jones is fired up about the case-ready operation he oversees at Smithfield Packing Company’s Tar Heel, NC, pork-processing site. To be sure, the numbers turn him on — 12 million pounds of marinated pork in 2004 — but mostly his joy is sparked by the outcome from years of devotion and attention to a single process.
“I have lived case ready for about nine years now,” Jones, senior director of case-ready sales and operations, confirms during a recent tour of the half-mile-long Tar Heel facility. “It is exciting to see it taking off.”
Smithfield’s case-ready program coincided with the introduction in the early ‘90s of the Smithfield Lean Generation™ branded lower-fat pork line, including various pork-loin center cuts.
Although establishing a solid case-ready program has taken years, the future holds the promise of the success Smithfield’s case-ready architects envisioned early on. Another major retail partner recently signed on to sell Smithfield case-ready pork, reports C. Larry Pope, Smithfield Food’s president.
“Our new business is a very significant step in the industry’s evolution of case-ready volume improvement,” Pope says.
It is no secret that, while case-ready product is considered ideal in terms of food-safety and out-of-stock solutions at retail, among other benefits, the concept has not lived up to expectations for the industry in general. The industry, however, continues to tout the benefits of case ready backed by financial investments in production and marketing programs. Smithfield is a front-row contender in the case-ready game.
“We are very much in the case-ready game, even though until recently we have not had big business increases we hoped for,” Pope says. “We continue trying to convince customers that this is the right alternative for them, but that takes time.  We are talking to other customers, but today our business is driven by a few large accounts.”
There was significant growth of the modified atmosphere packaging four years ago. “Since that time we have grown this segment of our business at a steady pace, although slower than we would have liked,” Pope concludes.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heel plant is in line for a facility expansion enabling Smithfield to increase capacity of its marinated flavored line. The goal is 25-percent growth over the 12 million pounds produced in 2004. The marinade line grew more than 50 percent in volume last year. While growth prompted the expansion plans, research findings dictate the product direction.
“We are letting our research tell us what our customers expect in terms of packaging, preparation methods, and different flavor preferences,” reports Joe Weber, Smithfield’s vice president of fresh pork sales. “Our growth in branded case ready and marinated products is an indication that our investment in this research is paying off.”
Product cuts include tenderloin, loin, fillet, sparerib, sirloin, chops, and Chef Prime boneless rib-end roast.  Current flavor choices include pepper, teriyaki, golden rotisserie, Italian garlic and herb, lemon pepper, sweet and sassy, hickory sweet, and Burgundy pepper.
Smithfield Packing Company — the first-born division
Smithfield Foods operates 50 processing plants across America, whose management is the responsibility of managers assigned to separate independent operating units (see Smithfield Foods map). The Tar Heel plant, dedicated to fresh meat products, is part of the Smithfield Packing Company business unit, presided over by Joe Luter IV. Smithfield Packing comprises facilities in Landover, MD, for smoked ham and other smoked meat products; Plant City, FL, dedicated to hot dogs, lunchmeat, smoked meats, and sausage products; and Smithfield, VA, for fresh pork, bacon, sausage, and smoked meats. Besides the fresh meat operation in Tar Heel, other North Carolina plants include a smoked meats and deli operation in Kinston and bacon in Wilson.
In line with continuous improvement initiatives, all slaughter plants in the Smithfield Foods family are due to convert to CO2 stunning system.
“We know that anesthetizing animals using CO2 produces better meat quality than traditional electrical stunning,” explains Larry Johnson, vice president of fresh pork operations for the Smithfield Packing division.
The Smithfield Foods pork empire started with Smithfield Packing in 1936 as the brainchild of the father-and-son duo Joseph Luter and Joseph Luter Jr. Current chairman and chief executive officer, Joseph Luter III, took over running the company after his father’s death in 1963 until 1969 when the company was acquired. The new owners fired Luter, who left the following year to pursue other business ventures, mostly in real estate — only to return in 1975 after a five-year hiatus to rescue Smithfield Packing from ruin in the hands of its parent company.
Smithfield Packing is now in the leadership hands of the fourth-generation Luter and son of the chairman. The division generates more than 2 billion pounds of pork annually and $2 billion in sales with more than 9,500 employees. Besides Tar Heel, the division produces case-ready products in Virginia at Smithfield and Bedford.
“We are in a case-ready explosion,” surmises Jere Null, senior vice president, adding that Smithfield’s case-ready volume grew by 41 percent in 2004.
“Our strength lies in our unique abilities,” he continues. “We are building redundancy in case-ready plants such that we can limit any possibility of failure with our customers. We continue to focus on our core non-traditional superstores, but we are also providing solutions to traditional retailers by offering flexibility of packaging types and custom value-added products that these retailers expect.”
The plant is capable of producing up to eight SKUs simultaneously on the same line.
“We are not afraid of being collaborative with what our customers need and want, that’s why operations and sales work as a team to get close to our customers,” Null explains. “We focus our efforts at the store level and talk with meat managers to determine their concerns. Our operating people formerly dealt with customers only when problems occurred.  Now it is not uncommon to see our sales, plant, and QA people proactively visit our customers prior to the first load of meat even arriving.”
Tar Heel is home to a processing spectacle
With 1 million square feet of space stretching the length of about eight football fields, Smithfield Packing’s Tar Heel facility is the largest pork processing plant in the world. It was the parent company’s first newly constructed facility under the leadership of Joe Luter III. The first building phase comprised 560,000 square feet completed in 1992, when the plant began operating at its 160-acre site adjacent to the Cape Fear River in the middle of Bladen County, North Carolina.
The plant, under the guidance of Johnson, produces 500,000 pounds of whole-muscle pork per week; 300,000 pounds of case-ready fresh offal weekly; and 300,000 pounds of ground pork weekly.
“We are a customer driven organization,” Johnson notes. “Our East Coast location and our plant floor flexibility allow us to service our customers, and ultimately the consumer, more effectively than our Midwest competition.”
Johnson provides the big-picture guidance, while Ken Wilson, who joined the organization last year as plant manager, is the man in charge on a daily basis on the operations side.
“Our dual-line facility enables us to produce twice the volume of traditional pork plants,” says Wilson, who brings 25 years of industry experience on the fresh pork side to his job.
 “It is important to coordinate between various departments in the plant. We hold daily meetings to discuss the issues of the day. This is an employee-friendly plant. We concentrate on making it a better place to work with strong ergonomic and safety programs, among others.”
Dan Etzler, corporate quality director, and eight-year Smithfield Packing veteran, ensures that division plants operate under stringent parameters.
“My job is to make sure we operate under uniform policies and procedures, so that you can’t tell by looking at products which plant produced them,” Etzler says. “That means uniformity in auditing standards, food-safety interventions, and HACCP [hazard analysis critical control points], a dynamic and evolving program that changes as new interventions emerge.”
A new intervention at the Tar Heel plant involves protective gear for the production force, which now is disposable, replacing all cotton frocks and gloves.
“The benefit is that disposable apparel aids in mobility to enhance employees ability to work safely,” Etzler emphasizes. NP