Under the Microscope
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
American Foodservice relies on its cutting-edge food-safety methods to ensure a high-quality, safe product on a consistent basis.
American Foodservice started in King of Prussia, Pa., and expanded to Ft. Worth, Texas in the 1980s. When it was looking for a new plant to fill in the triangle that would allow the company to cover all of the East Coast and most of the Midwest, they headed south. In this case, it was south to Thomasville, Ga., located near the Georgia-Florida border.
Unlike the other case-ready plants it operates, this facility had to be built from the ground up. It was a $15 million investment to construct the facility and bring in the necessary equipment, but Barry Renninger, president and chief operating officer, says that American Foodservice knew it was necessary for a long-term commitment. “We thought it was a perfect location, looking at what we had in the Northeast and Texas,” he says. The plant, located within a day’s drive from major markets such as Miami and Atlanta, has helped the company extend its range to include the Southeast, Southwest, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and most of the Midwest.
Another challenge in getting the new facility up and running was finding qualified people to run it. The needed experience came from Tim Biela, a 15-year veteran with American Foodservice who serves as vice president and chief food safety officer. Initially he was director of quality assurance for the company’s Texas operations. He moved to Georgia on January 1 of this year to serve as the plant general manager.
“It was a commitment on the part of the owners to bring someone down here who has been with the company for an extended amount of time and really understands our operations, front to back,” he says. During his time with American Foodservice, he has built up the company’s food safety program to become one of the strongest in the meat-processing industry.
The Thomasville facility, part of the American Fresh Foods partnership between American Foodservice and Fairbank Farms, started off small by design. “We started with fresh ground beef, and we tried to develop those systems and those people,” Renninger notes. When the plant first began operation in August 2005, it was making fresh case-ready products for the retail market. Last year, it added the equipment needed to produce frozen hamburger patties as well. The plant currently has three lines for modified-atmosphere packaging (MAP) of fresh ground beef, a line to produce fresh ground beef chubs, and two lines to produce individually quick-frozen (IQF) hamburger patties for foodservice customers. Along with the expansion in product type, there will soon be an expansion of the workday; a second shift is scheduled to start up in May.
Along with Biela, who oversees the food-safety programs for all of American Foodservice’s plants, the Thomasville location has a full-time microbiologist on staff to take samples on both the raw product coming into the plant and the packaged product that’s ready to leave the plant. “[Finished product] goes into a microbiological hold, and the only individuals who are to release it are the individuals in our technical services department,” he explains.
The laboratory staff will typically take between 35 to 50 samples each day at every location, depending on the plant volume. “Our laboratories will do anywhere from 35,000 to 75,000 assays annually,” Biela notes. “It’s one of the reasons why we have laboratories in-house and microbiologists on staff.”
The first firewall to prevent contaminated beef from reaching consumers is a pre-screening program, which tests the raw material that comes into the plant. “We have an audit program in place we utilize for all of our raw materials suppliers,” Biela says. “It’s based on their ability to achieve what we consider to be the best practice standards for microbiological profiles, including the screening and testing of E. coli O157:H7.” Based on those audits, American Foodservice is able to track the incidence rates for E. coli and other pathogens for each supplier. If the rates get too high, more intensified audits or testing could take place to determine where the supplier needs to improve its testing, or the supplier could be disqualified from sending beef to American Foodservice.
“We only allow the best raw materials to come to any of our facilities, so we minimize or mitigate the potential impact of something that comes from suppliers to our facilities,” Biela says.
The post-processing testing is even more intensive, with sampling being done every 20 minutes throughout the day, with all the resulting data being entered into a database. The labs do a complete beef microbiological profile, running tests for aerobic plate counts (APC), Coliform and E. coli, coagulase positive Staphylococcus, E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella and Listeria on all of its finished retail products. With the company’s testing technology that targets the bacteria’s DNA, it can detect extremely low levels of organisms. “The key to the whole procedure is that we’re doing serial sampling throughout the entire day,” Biela says. “For something to slip through is pretty rare. You can’t say it’s a silver bullet, but it’s as close as we’re going to get.”
From the moment that raw beef is brought into the plant, American Foodservice’s food-safety protocols are put into action. The beef is tagged with a barcode that details where the meat came from, when it was packed and when it was received. That meat can be tracked through every step of the process. Once it is bar coded and pre-screened, the meat is kept in a storage cooler prior to processing. As there is less than a day’s worth of inventory in the Thomasville plant, the time frame from when it arrives to when it leaves as finished product is typically less than two days.
Along with fresh beef trucked in from around the country, the Thomasville also receives imported frozen blocks of beef. Biela notes that the company gets primal-specific cuts rather than the trimmings, which results in a higher grade of ground product. Furthermore, while the company does not market the meat as all-natural, much of the beef it receives from New Zealand and other importing countries is hormone free and antibiotic free.
The frozen blocks first have to be slightly thawed in a microwave; while the tempered blocks are still frozen, the microwave process allows the polyethylene liner to be removed and the blocks to be broken down into fist sized chunks for grinding. The grinders are equipped with defect elimination systems, which remove any foreign objects from the raw ground product.
Depending on the schedule, the ground is either sent to the fresh side for packaging into MAP containers or chubs or to the frozen side for IQF patties. “The raw materials that are used for fresh retail are completely separate from the raw materials used for IQF burgers. Nothing is co-mingled at all,” Biela says. The case-ready processing is typically done in the morning, with the frozen patties done in the afternoon.
The addition of the IQF lines converted about half of the 75,000-square-foot building to frozen patty processing. It added 35 new jobs to the plant, essentially doubling the workforce, and required a $3 million investment.
On the new IQF lines, the ground beef is transferred to the company’s forming machines. “The patties are formed and knocked out of the forming plate onto a conveyor, and then they’re perforated, which enhances the cooking and also the heat transfer through the patty, prior to the time where they go through our tunnels and are frozen,” Biela explains. The patties are frozen in impingement freezers, and before they are packed and check-weighed, they are run through a metal detector to ensure that nothing has been picked up as the meat was processed.
Final testing on the products is also done prior to shipping. The patties are checked for both food safety and performance, using the same equipment that is in the back of the house at the restaurants. “We’re cooking these out looking for all of the attributes associated with quality that occur in the restaurant,” Biela says. “In other words, do we have the right texture in the product that we’re looking for, the flavor, the aroma. Does it cook to the right temperature within the specified amount of time, using the customer’s own specifications for those products.”
All of that information is entered into a database and is reviewed on a daily basis. Biela says that all that data is evaluated to see if the process is varying beyond normal parameters. “We know when a change to the process is occurring, or if we need to make a change to improve the product. That way, when the restaurant gets the product, it performs the way they want it to.”
The microbiological and performance data is all available on the company’s Intranet site, so Biela can review the process at every plant, no matter where he is. While American Foodservice’s testing procedure is very thorough, it is surprisingly cost effective. He says that the company’s pathogen prevention program, with its emphasis on serial sampling and the utilization of genetic microbiology, costs the company less than a penny a pound. Those costs are offset by the peace of mind that the testing brings its customers.
“I think that it’s become very important to our customer base,” Biela says. “They’re assured that the products we’re producing and delivering to their doors are safe for consumption, both at retail and commercial foodservice.”