Fully Cooked Commitment
By Sam Gazdziak, Senior Editor
Pilgrim’s Pride Places an Emphasis on Further-processed Chicken Products, and its Waco Facility is at the Forefront of That Movement.
Every week, millions of pounds of fresh chicken meat are delivered to the receiving docks of the Pilgrim’s Pride prepared-foods plant in Waco, Texas. By the time that meat leaves the plant days later, as appetizing entrées or crucial frozen-dinner ingredients, it will have gone through a number of processes. It could be marinated, sliced, diced, glazed, formed, breaded, fried, cooked or grill-marked, to name just a few possibilities.
As one of the company’s largest prepared-foods plants the 320,000-square-foot Waco facility has the flexibility and capacity to handle just about any order.
“Our smallest package is a four-ounce package, and our largest is a 1,000-pound combo,” notes W. Paul Miller, Waco plant manager. Miller has been with Pilgrim’s Pride for more than 10 years and has been the plant manager in Waco for two-and-a-half years.
He says the plant produces such a wide variety of chicken products because its customers have a broad array of items that they offer to consumers. About 70 percent of the plant’s customers are “industrial,” meaning that they use chicken as an ingredient in a frozen dinner, a can of soup or a refrigerated product, for example. Quick-serve restaurants and retail customers make up the majority of Waco’s other customers.
“We want to be able to offer our customers as much flexibility as possible so that we can provide service across all their lines of business. As a company, we’re very interested in making sure that we are a comprehensive supplier to our customers, rather than just a single line-of-business supplier,” Miller says. “Within the poultry protein segment, we want to be able to offer any type of product.”
The Waco plant originally was built around 1990 by Plantation Foods. It started off as a two-line plant that produced fully cooked, sliced meat. Plantation was acquired by Cargill, which promptly sold the plant to Pilgrim’s Pride in 1999. For the next five years, Pilgrim’s Pride expanded the building, adding new lines and upgrading the existing lines.
Today, the plant employs approximately 700 people and houses six ready-to-eat, further-processing lines. It processes about three million pounds of fully cooked product per week.
Over the past several years, Pilgrim’s Pride, headquartered in Pittsburg, Texas, has made a commitment to expanding its prepared-foods business. Miller says that segment offers better margins and makes the company less susceptible to fluctuations in market pricing.
“The further away you get from the live chicken, the more stability you should have in terms of price,” he adds.
Because the needs of its customers keep changing, Pilgrim’s Pride has had to stay at the leading edge of processing capabilities. One of the newest endeavors in Waco is production of non-shelf-stable, refrigerated chicken products that are sold through the refrigerated section of supermarkets, as opposed to the frozen-food aisles.
“Our ability to step out across all lines of business and continue to put investment into that puts us further out on that value-added line and brings more stability to the company,” Miller says.
One of Pilgrim’s Pride’s most recent entries into the prepared-foods arena has been the EatWellStayHealthy line of chicken products. The products were the first the first fully cooked poultry product to qualify for the American Heart Association (AHA) seal, meaning the products are approved as heart-healthy by the AHA. Miller notes the growing concern in American consumers about exactly what is in the food that they eat.
“There’s a lot of movement right now toward being able to offer convenient, high-quality, healthy products for consumers,” he explains. “I would definitely say we’re a trendsetter in that regard.”
While the EatWellStayHealthy line has some fresh, uncooked poultry items, the majority of the line is made up of frozen items. The majority of the frozen products, including Szechwan Breast Tenders, Italian Style Grilled Chicken Breast Fillets, Key Lime Flavor Chicken Breast Fillets, Grilled Chicken Breast Fillets and Grilled Chicken Breast Strips, were developed and are produced in the Waco plant.
Miller says the plant was a good location for the EatWellStayHealthy products because of its capacity and flexibility.
“Our marketing and research indicated that it was something that could become a fairly high-volume item, and we needed to make sure that if it happened, we would be able to meet that demand,” he explains.
The addition of those products requires a strict adherence to standard operating procedures, because the AHA credentials come with very specific moisture and fat-content requirements. Pilgrim’s Pride also took care in making sure that a serving portion would be both healthy and hearty; Miller said that it’s easy to promote a product that is low-fat and low-calorie by sacrificing serving size, but to develop a hearty serving size and meet the AHA requirements was a challenge.
Since its launch two years ago, Miller notes that demand for the EatWellStayHealthy line has increased each quarter. Today the brand can be found in more than 3,000 retail stores across the country. He also notes that the line should not suffer from any seasonal product fluctuations that other lines may have.
Late last year, the company expanded the brand by introducing EatWellStayHealthy KidsTM Breaded Chicken Breast Nuggets and Breaded Popcorn Chicken. These products, which were first to market, have less than half the calories, half the carbohydrates and 80 percent less fat per serving than the leading national brand.
“If you have consumers who are concerned about their health and well-being and want to eat right, they’re going to come back to these items every time,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer or football season. That’s going to be the primary protein source for their diet year-round.”
Pilgrim’s Pride releases new items on a regular basis, with 450 new additions last year as prime evidence. Much of the work is done by sales and research & development personnel, but once a product has potential for a product launch, it is brought to a plant for a small production run. It is put into a real-world situation to see if it can pass muster.
“At a bench test, it may be feasible, but once you put it into a plant, you may need to modify processes in order to meet that standard,” Miller says.
The majority of chicken meat that is processed in the Waco plant comes from Pilgrim’s Pride processing plants in Dallas, Mt. Pleasant and Nacogdoches, Texas, along with plants in West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee and Arkansas. All the meat arrives fresh and deboned (with the obvious exception of bone-in products such as wings).
Miller says that the Waco facility currently manages more than 200 stock-keeping units (SKUs), with only about 72 available shifts on a weekly basis and six production lines. Items that run on a consistent basis are planned into the production schedule first. Remaining products are then added into the schedule. One asset the plant has is that most items can be run on multiple lines, so a diced or formed chicken product is not limited to just one line.
The Waco plant boasts a number of large tumblers that are capable of marinating several thousand pounds of chicken at once. From there, the chicken will go through whatever further processes are required. It can be formed into nuggets or patties and breaded, or it might be covered in a sauce for hot wings. It can pass through an oven and have grill marks added to it from red-hot rollers, or it can be par-fried. All products, such as the EatWellStayHealthy fillets and strips, pass through a spiral freezer prior to packaging.
The plant has a one-million-pound storage freezer, although most product is shipped out to distribution centers the day it is produced. The Waco facility ships products nationwide and also exports some products to Canada, Mexico and the Middle East.
The raw and fully cooked sections of the plant are completely segregated, down to the bathrooms, break room and locker rooms, for biosecurity purposes. Employees in those two processing areas wear different colored smocks as well, so someone who is out of place can be easily spotted.
The Waco plant is considered one of Pilgrim’s Pride’s showpiece plants, and many investors and businesspeople have toured the facility. Miller says that the plant, from its design to its production capabilities, is an example of the company’s commitment to excellence. He notes that the plant can produce a specialty item with the same speed and efficiency that it would a standard product, and that it can deliver high volumes with short lead times and quick turnaround times.
“There are other plants in our industry that may be able to run similar volume, but the bulk of that volume is going to be one or two items, and if they ever stopped producing those, they’d probably have to shut lines down,” Miller points out. “But we are in a unique position here in Waco. We can produce anything.”