Graduation Day

MBA Poultry moves into a new state-of-the-art processing facility.

There were no valedictorians giving speeches, and the musical accompaniment featured bagpipes instead of “Pomp and Circumstance.” But the grand opening of MBA Poultry’s Waverly, Neb., processing plant had a graduation theme, and justifiably so. The move into the plant moves production from a converted soup factory into a bright, open, ultra-modern poultry-processing facility.
“We have once again raised the standard to keep Smart Chicken® the highest-quality chicken in the United States,” said Erik Monson, vice president of sales and marketing, during the opening ceremony on May 20. Monson, the master of ceremonies for the Waverly plant opening, added, “We are sitting and standing in the nation’s finest poultry-processing facility.”
For MBA Poultry and its air-chilled Smart Chicken products, the new 175,000-square-foot facility had been two years in the making. Mark Haskins, president, CEO and founder, calls the move a new beginning for the company and says that it will help the company further penetrate the marketplace. “It will mean a higher-quality product for us because of the accuracies of all the machines we have here,” he says. “I am convinced the consumer will notice a difference in the quality of the product from what it is today.”
The Waverly plant, which went into full production at the end of May, is built on a 34-acre plot of land that will allow the company to expand further if an opportunity arises. A second building, which will house the company’s headquarters, also is being built on the site. Construction there is due to be complete by August.
Haskins says he traveled the world touring facilities, looking for ideas that could be implemented into the Waverly plant. When the plant is running at peak capacity, it will have the ability to process 100,000 birds a day.
Improving operations
MBA’s former processing plant, located 55 miles from Waverly in Tecumseh, Neb., was a Campbell’s soup factory before it was used for poultry processing. Haskins was looking to bring air-chilling technology to the United States, and the factory’s large rooms were an attractive feature. However, parts of the plant were 75 years old, and in the end, Haskins decided it was easier to build a new plant instead of trying to expand the old one.
The new plant will employ about 270 people, almost half of whom came from the Tecumseh plant. The old plant will still be in operation; all slaughter, evisceration and air-chilling operations will remain, and semis will regularly deliver whole chickens to Waverly for further processing and packaging. About 100 people will still be employed in Tecumseh.
By starting from scratch, MBA was able to raise its food safety, employee comfort and production flow to new levels. Employees, growers and customers who attended the grand opening were able to take a tour of the facility and see the improvements for themselves. The National Provisioner was also in attendance to cover the opening.
Many of the time-consuming tasks have been automated at Waverly, such as deciding how to use each bird that comes into the plant. Each carcass will be individually weighed, and a computerized system will make a determination of what to do with the bird. If there is an order for deli products, all birds of the appropriate weight will be directed to the deli line. Previously, employees had to weigh the birds manually and make those decisions.
Elsewhere in the system, another station will photograph each chicken, taking individual pictures of the two wings, thighs, drumsticks, and breast. “When it takes a picture, it’s going to be able to make a decision on what to do with that bird,” explains Bob Mason, field sales development manager. “Is it an A-grade bird, something we want to keep whole because of the beautiful presentation? Do we want to cut it up into a bunch of different pieces?” The system also will check for color and shape. Once it has determined the chicken’s grade, it will send that bird through the fabrication area, bypassing systems until it arrives at the proper station.
The front-half deboning area is a blend of old and new technologies. There are two lines dedicated to removing breast filets, tenders and wings. One line is constantly moving, with 12 workers each making a cut, leaving nothing but bone by the end of the line. Next to it is a new stationary deboning area, where one employee is responsible for making all the cuts on a carcass. Twelve employees also will work on this line.
Because the meat gathered from this station is so valuable, MBA has taken numerous steps to enhance quality control, as well as foster a little healthy competition among the cutters. Every piece of meat that comes off these lines is weighed, providing instant yield feedback for the employee, as well as the supervisor in the control room. A quality-assurance station will grade the pieces and will notify the manager when a worker’s cuts are out of spec.
The output of the 24 workers will be ranked, and those results will be posted on a plasma-screen television in the plant’s lunchroom. The idea is to encourage everyone to work to the best of their abilities and get to the top of the list.
There are numerous other features throughout the plant that are an improvement over the Tecumseh facility. Unlike the older building, the Waverly plant has many windows, keeping the fabrication area bright and well-lit. In the traying area, an overhead conveyor will constantly send new trays out to the employees on the line. “They just have to reach up and take a stack of trays out of the conveyor,” Mason says. “There will always be trays coming by, so there won’t be anything cluttering [the working area], and they don’t have to leave their workstation to get trays like they do in Tecumseh.”
The truck bay has twice the number of docks as the old plant, as well as other new features. In Tecumseh, the truck doors couldn’t be opened inside the plant, so workers would have to open the doors and back the truck into the dock. All the cool air would be let out of the trailer, and the workers in the dock would have to wait for the truck’s temperature to cool down again before they could load it. In Waverly, drivers can back the truck into an already-cool environment and then open the doors.
The centerpiece of the operations is a control room, which is something the Tecumseh plant never had. The room features large bay windows looking out over the fabrication and packaging sections of the plant, allowing supervisors to see exactly what is happening on the floor at any given time. Banks of computer monitors will help them track production and yield rates.
The control room will allow visitors to safely see all the plant’s activities without walking onto the floor and creating unnecessary food-safety risks. “We’ve always had a keen interest in [having customers] be able to visit the facility,” Haskins notes. “With this facility, we will be able to keep intact our biosecurity by allowing them to view the floors from the second level. It will be impressive to the people who are buying our product, and they will understand and hopefully better realize the quality statement that we are making throughout our plant.”
The plant’s location is another advantage in and of itself. Located just off of Interstate 80 near Lincoln, MBA’s trucks have good access to both coasts, a necessity for a company that has product in more than 40 states. “In addition, we will have customers who will pick up their product here because of the ease of location,” Haskins adds.
Bright future
While the opening ceremony was not a place to dwell on bad memories, MBA did give some recognition to how far it had come in the last six years. A flyer that was handed out to all the attendees included a timeline of the company’s history, listing that the company was closed for almost six months in 2000. After reorganizing and reopening, the company has been on a definite upward swing since that time. Last year, the company generated sales of more than $60 million. The new plant, with its improved production abilities, as well as cost savings and efficiencies over the older building, is sure to continue the company’s success.
Haskins already is looking at ways to put the Smart Chicken brand further into the marketplace. “We certainly see in our future the ability to marinate product or to cook product,” Haskins points out. “When a facility is needed because of market demand, we will have the acreage to build a facility for whatever market we’re trying to get into.” NP
The air-chilled process
MBA Poultry was the first company to bring air-chilled chicken into the United States in 1999, though it’s been available in Western Europe for decades.
In the conventional method of water-chilling chickens, the carcasses are immersed in often-chlorinated water below 40F and moved through the water, bringing down the internal temperature of the bird. Once the temperature is reduced to 40F, the birds are moved onto a shake table and then a drip line to remove excess water. The carcasses are packaged or further processed from there.
MBA Poultry’s Smart Chickens® are chilled individually with purified cold air in two separate chilling chambers. The carcasses cycle for more than two hours, while the internal temperature drops. The birds exit the chiller with no added water gain.
According to a study by the University of Nebraska, air-chilled chicken have bacteria counts up to 80 percent lower than water-chilled chickens. MBA Poultry relays that the water bath used in the water-chilling process becomes contaminated throughout the day as it shares blood, parts and bacteria with the birds, exposing the birds to cross-contamination.
Apart from the health benefits, MBA also boasts that the process locks in the natural flavors and juices into the meat, improving the taste. That is part of the reason why every package of Smart Chicken also include the phrase, “Taste the air-chilled difference.”