Debbie Henning, a 30-year meat industry veteran for Wichita, KS-based Cargill Meat Solutions Corporation (CMS), knows the ins and outs of ground beef production, thanks to 20 years of experience backed by management mentoring, comprehensive training, and the drive to be the best at her job.
As ground beef operations manager based in Dodge City, KS, Henning has oversight of eight beef processing plants in Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and a sister company plant in Alberta, Canada. No wonder her boss left the task of designing a new wing at the Dodge City plant, dedicated to case-ready ground beef, in her hands.
“It was her baby,” confirms Dan Schnitker, vice president and general manager over the 800,000-square-foot Dodge City operation.
Construction of the two-story, 24,000-square-foot addition took only 16 weeks to finish in time to begin operating this year on June 1.
“It was a very fast-tracked project,” Schnitker notes. “The facility has a lot of built-in flexibility. Ground beef has been an evolution for us for years. We look at the entire ground beef category for growth potential and how we can increase consumer confidence in the product.”
Notably, the new wing represents a departure from other case-ready plants in that Dodge City is a fresh-meat plant from slaughter to shipping. The facility is completely separate from the slaughter side, however.
Ground beef production in Dodge City includes chubs for further production at its case-ready sister plants; 10-pound bulk chub packs, targeting retail stores where the meat is reground and repackaged; a variety of retail chubs sold under CMS brands or otherwise as private label product; and the newest line of REDiFresh brand case-ready patties. The new RediFresh brand packaging technology is used across several CMS lines.
“REDiFresh packaged products have a twenty-one day shelf life,” Henning asserts. “If a consumer buys it on the twenty-first day, we are confident that the product will perform in the normal way under refrigeration. It can also be frozen at home.”
The Dodge City plant also markets trim to other processors for their patty and case-ready programs. “We work hard to help make sure anybody can sell that product with confidence because of our quality and food-safety practices,” Schnitker concludes.
The addition in Dodge City is the production showcase for various ground-beef products, including the newest introduction of REDiFresh packaged ground beef patties, delivered in new packaging, that reflects technology designed to deliver “unprecedented, longer fresh meat color.”
Made from 100-percent pure beef — patties created from various cuts and lean points, including sirloin, round and chuck, in both 85/15 and 96/4 lean-fat rations — patties in the REDiFresh packaging feature a near oxygen-free environment to eliminate “oxidative rancidity” to help ensure “rich beef flavor and freshness” for the life of the product. The proprietary atmosphere “locks in” better texture and fresh flavor allowing for longer fresh color in the meat case, faster counter recovery, and is also available on same truck delivery as fresh beef. “The story is not just the technology behind this concept, but rather the process that allows retailers to be more successful,” explains Norman Bessac, vice president of marketing. “They can reduce shrink and can also draw more people into the beef category with the new packaging. The REDiFresh packaging represents the ‘inside intelligence.’ Just like everyone may not understand how computer chips are made or exactly how a computer operates, we know it works. With the REDiFresh packaging, we know the outcome. It is good for the retailer and the consumer.”
During a recent tour of the Dodge City facility, Henning identified several notable features in the new wing, which was designed to improve the production process. For example, an online meat analyzer automatically adjusts meat batches to achieve the accurate lean-to-fat ratios, while also controlling color levels.
“This helps us increase throughput because the computer automatically develops the formula,” Henning notes. “Online formulations also eliminate downtime for making manual adjustments with fat or lean.”
The formulation process begins with the surge loader, whereby raw material — lean and fat — is pulled to begin its journey through the process of grinding, bone elimination, chilling, packaging, boxed storage, and shipping.
Another notable equipment feature is a vacuum sampler attached to the blender, to facilitate the lean-point verification process. The plant’s test-and-hold program includes trim and finished ground product, rather than just testing trim — an industry standard — to detect E. coli 0157: H7.
The facility is computer-driven, owing to the presence of a small work force on the plant floor. The entire operation is monitored and controlled by keyboard in a viewing room overlooking the plant floor.
Schnitker says other CMS case-ready plants operating in Wisconsin, Missouri, Georgia, and Ontario, Canada, adhere to the same quality standards. “Ground-beef quality starts when the cattle walk off the truck,” Schnitker emphasizes. “It is not some silver bullet at the end of the process. It is a whole system for improving our business, which ultimately improves our retail customers’ business.”
Ground beef initiative
Although case ready is the newest initiative in Dodge City, the plant also slaughters fed cattle and produces a range of beef products, including deboned meat, boxed beef, and case-ready packaged variety meats.
“Ground beef was a byproduct when we first started in this business; now it is a driver product,” Schnitker emphasizes. “Ground beef is consumed by more people than any other meat product.”
CMS produces over a half-billion pounds of ground beef per year. The Dodge City plant operates with 2,750 employees and three shifts – one for sanitation. Pathogen testing is conducted on site by an independent laboratory.
“Our goal is to deliver quality, great-tasting products to consumers, and case-ready is one step,” Bessac reports. “We don’t really look at ground beef plant by plant; we look at how we can align the whole system so that we are adding value to customers, who in turn, add value to the consumer. If we can improve the business, everybody in that chain benefits.”
Although its ground beef numbers are impressive, CMS has not always enjoyed such marketing success in the category. Henning and other members of the Dodge City team recall the early days, when ground beef produced at the plant was considered good, but not quite good enough.
“Our mind set is, quality can always be better,” Bessac says.
Improving ground beef quality became a priority when customers pointed out certain improvements years ago.
“We made a trip around to customers several years ago to get their feedback about our ground beef,” Henning recalls. “That’s when we started our ground beef meetings — two a year, initially — to look at improving the quality with temperature-control measures, for example, and shelf-life studies. We realized that if customers bought our ground beef, they would consider buying everything else.”
Over a five-year period, CMS invested to upgrade the Dodge City plant to provide financing for equipment, operating systems, research and development, and training. Companywide, the investment in plant population totaling 28 processing facilities worldwide added up to more than $1 billion through the past 10 years.
The company’s efforts also led to the implementation of new food-safety tools designed to combat microbial threats — especially to ground beef, including E. coli O157:H7. Such technological developments as thermal pasteurization, hide-washing, ultraviolet pathogen detection, vision-grading, and chub-chilling systems evolved.
“We realized the value of trim and grind, and how key it was to the total beef process,” Schnitker explains. “These investments also illustrate the magnitude of where we position ground beef in this company. That’s why, several years ago, we focused on our ground beef process across all the plants, especially on the kill floor and in shipping. ”
As Slaughter Manager Duane Clark knows, the ground beef process begins on the kill floor, and that humane handling is a key aspect.
“We are proactively fighting what you can’t see,” he notes referring to microscopic contaminants on carcasses.
The animal hide is a major source of E. coli O157:H7. CMS plants send carcasses through a high-pressure wash prior to dehiding to reduce bacterial load.
“We believe we are the only North American beef processor to install hide-washing equipment in all of our fed-cattle plants,” Clark says. “Our tests show that thermal pasteurization also reduces the general microbial load.”
Before beef sides go from the cooler to the fabrication floor, hand-held ultraviolet devices are used to check for trace contaminants — another CMS first in terms of industrywide use.
“Once we process it, the product has to be distributed properly,” Clark says.
CMS trucks use computer chips to continuously monitor and adjust the temperature in trailers. The company guarantees that ground beef will arrive at its destination, chilled to 32°F.
“Getting the cold chain off to a good start helps extend the color life, reduces shrink, and increases profit potential,” Clark concludes.
Ground beef is her specialty now, but when she joined CMS, Henning was a different kind of pioneer. Her career odyssey leading to a job with no female peers began nearly 30 years ago, when her management potential was unearthed.
“Back then most of the women went to work “at pack” off in the plant, but I wanted to learn to use a knife in deboning, where the pay was higher,” Henning recalls. A year into the job, Henning was identified as management material, to her amusement.
“It was suggested that I should go to personnel and interview with a guy from Wichita [CMS headquarters],” she says. “He asked me if I thought about going into the management program. I asked him if he realized I was female [she laughs], and he said that was exactly the reason. He said that nobody seemed to work as hard as me [another laugh].”
Training involved several seminars throughout the years about managing people, how to handle conflicts, and a range of other problem-solving issues.
“I didn’t go to many seminars. It was mainly hands-on. I just coached people that I could depend on to help get us through the tough times,” Henning says. “It was a year of training and learning how to do every job on the plant floor. I accepted the opportunity because it was a challenge.”
She no longer manages people directly, but she is responsible for eight plants, requiring that she make periodic trips to each site. Regular communication is through weekly conference calls.
“I go to make sure they are doing what they say they are doing when we talk on the phone,” Henning says. “I basically conduct audits to make sure all the plants meet the same criteria.”
Henning’s contribution demonstrates the teamwork that is tied to business success, Bessac relays.
“A new culture focusing on customer solutions came out of the ground beef experience,” he concludes. “It’s about giving our people the right tools to make the right decisions. The bottom line for us is that we are constantly looking at the business to determine how we can improve the quality of the product and the service we provide. It’s more than business processes. It’s the attitude and mind-set of our people that truly make us strive to be genuinely better for our customers.” NP