Partners in Strength
By Bryan Salvage, Editorial Director
Lopez Foods’ relationship with McDonald’s is deeply rooted and focused on meeting product safety and quality goals.
Ask any McDonald’s Corporation executive or meat-supplier partner what’s most important to the Golden Arches and they’ll quickly respond: quality and food safety.
“Decisions aren’t driven by economics, they’re driven by product quality and safety,” reiterates Eduardo (Ed) Sanchez, president and chief executive officer of Lopez Foods Inc., Oklahoma City, OK. His company’s plant processes frozen hamburger patties, breakfast sausage patties, and McRibs, for the McDonald’s Corporation system in the South Central part of the United States.
Before joining Lopez Foods in January 2004, Sanchez spent many years with McDonald’s, most recently as president, Latin America. John C. Lopez, entrepreneur and chairman, once operated four family-run McDonald’s units in Los Angeles before buying the controlling interest of McDonald’s meat supplier, Normac Foods, in 1992. Shortly afterwards, he changed the company’s name to Lopez Foods, which has since evolved into the largest Latino-owned processor of beef and pork products in the country.
McDonald’s prides itself on being a food-safety leader.
“We often say that McDonald’s is an early adopter of virtually all food-safety programs…HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points], using supplier databases, micro testing, and other interventions,” says John Hayes, senior director, food and packaging for McDonald’s USA. “Before we talk about price or quantity, we first talk about food safety, which is always our number-one focus. There is no single process or intervention that ensures safe products to the customer. It’s a multiple-hurdle concept that ensures food safety — not just testing.” Hayes says.
McDonald’s has long audited beef packers for affidavits and proper paperwork to prove they’re observing the cattle feed ban. And long before bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) was an issue, McDonald’s adopted a policy against using downers in its meat supply. It also mandates validated interventions be implemented for pathogen control in beef slaughter plants throughout its supply chain.
“Before it became law, we required HACCP plans and validated critical control points in all slaughter facilities that supply our system,” says Robert Cannell, director, supply chain, McDonald’s USA. “And we focus heavily to assure we are purchasing the best-quality ingredient or products — that all food-safety interventions are in place before delivery to our restaurants. There are multiple validations along the way. We’re always looking for ways to improve our stringent standards for product quality.”
Lopez Foods’ 185,000 square-foot, state-of-the-art meat processing plant produces approximately 500,000 pounds of ground beef patties, 320,000 pounds of pre-cooked breakfast sausage patties, and 25,000 pounds of Canadian-style bacon daily for some of the largest quick-service restaurants and retailers in the world, including McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, and Tyson Foods.
The processor enforces and monitors all product quality and safety standards McDonald’s has for its suppliers.
“It’s our goal to make sure McDonald’s standards are met for micro- and sensory-quality in the raw materials we receive,” says Kevin Nanke, director, quality assurance, Lopez Foods. “We also have finished-product testing programs to validate what we process is in spec and acceptable.” To keep its raw-material suppliers in the loop, Lopez Foods sends them monthly “score cards” on how well they’re doing on micro counts and sensory evaluation.
McDonald’s commands a huge quality-assurance advantage over its competition thanks to Matrix, an interactive, real-time data-base system. McDonald’s suppliers can go online to view this database. “They’re getting a single view from the McDonald’s system against a known set of benchmarks or attributes. This continually reinforces to our suppliers how they perform,” Hayes explains. “We’re in the process of making that available to raw material suppliers as well.”
Once on the McDonald’s team, meat competitors quickly become staunch allies. Jim English, Lopez Foods’ executive vice president and chief operating officer explains: “We get input from McDonald’s other suppliers. Together we share information and best practices, and we collectively improve upon things on our own as we go along. We don’t wait for McDonald’s to tell us to do something. McDonald’s is taking that extra step of being inclusive with the players who are participating and getting them to help shape specifications, quality issues, and improvements that come through the system.”
“Our programs are designed by our suppliers,” Hayes adds. “It’s impossible to tell where the McDonald’s organization stops and the McDonald’s supplier community starts within this system.”
Focus on safety
Before entering the Lopez Foods plant, employees sanitize their hands before stepping through a sanitizing footbath. The beef and pork operations are segregated and separated by walls. Fifty quality checks an hour are done from the time raw materials arrive until finished product ships to distribution centers. All combo bins are bar-coded and contain information including the lot number, establishment number, and more to aid in tracking product.
Samples are routinely pulled from computerized blending to run through food and fat analyzers. The plant’s quality-assurance lab conducts in-house cuttings. Products are pulled off the line once an hour for cooked product evaluation. McDonald’s has set a quality and safety target for every product in which nine to 11 attributes in the areas of texture, appearance, and flavor are rated per product. Once a week, beef shelf-life tests are also conducted in-plant and in a restaurant environment. And twice a week, full-blown cutting tests are conducted that involve company officers and directors. Suppliers enter this data into the McDonald’s Matrix. Meanwhile, the sausage and fully cooked areas incorporate similar safety steps.
Products are tested for E. coli O157:H7, E. coli, total plate count, and salmonella. An AOAC (Association of Analytical Communities) in-house analytical lab manned by four certified lab technicians routinely performs tests on samples to ensure product safety. All finished frozen products are put on hold for at least for 24 hours awaiting test results before final shipping.
More than $1 million was invested in stainless-steel wall panels at the plant, says Rich Garofolo, divisional vice president of operations, Lopez Foods. “We also have stainless-steel floor drains, and the roof is made of washable materials. We also focus on clean-in-place [CIP] systems throughout this facility.” One new BPI pump and grinder system recently installed not only is CIP, it also incorporates a 30 minute, 185°F kill step.
“Any equipment we add or modify at the plant is designed to lower bacterial harborage,” English says.
Traffic flow at the plant is strictly regulated to separate the beef, pork sausage, and pre-cooked operations of the plant. “This plant was designed with McDonald’s wishes that it be broken into three complete plants – the only time our various products come together is when they enter the freezer in a packaged state. They’re automatically palletized and held for shipment,” Garofolo says.
As an added step for product segregation, employees wear different colors of uniforms to reflect the area they’re assigned to.
Lopez Foods’ crisis team is represented by all company disciplines that have defined roles and responsibilities in the event of a recall.
“Within an hour, we can tell you where the raw products came from, how they were handled, the condition they were in upon arrival — as well as the number of cases at each location, and which truck took it from this facility to the distribution center,” Nanke says. “In addition to our quality-control check, we do a mock recovery at least once a month.”
McDonald’s, Lopez Foods, and its remaining suppliers are prepared should a recall happen, Hayes says. “We’ve had that capability for quite some time,” he adds. “We’re now pioneering the idea of traceability back to the ranch.” NP