In less than one decade, high-pressure pasteurization (HPP) has developed into a legitimate, effective food-safety intervention and shelf-life extender for protein products. Processors such as Hormel Foods, Cargill, Sadler’s Smokehouse and J Bar B Foods, among others, have incorporated the technology over the years, and some in the industry predict 2011 will be “The Year of HPP” in the meat industry.

Furthermore, the business of HPP contract services (also known as “toll processing”) has grown to meet the demands of processors who cannot afford to jump on the HPP bandwagon with their own equipment just yet. One such company, Global Leading Foods (GL Foods) — which opened its doors in October 2010 in Coppell, Texas — hopes not only to ride the HPP wave, but also redefine what it means to be an HPP services provider.

GL Foods certainly is not the first business of its kind, and it is in the early stages of its existence, but its location, its goals and the timing of its startup place the company in an intriguing position to make a mark on the industry.

Hot on the HPP trail

HPP weaved its way into the career of Kelley Battles, founder and president of GL Foods, during his time as a salesman for an Austin, Texas, beef processor from 2004 through 2008. HPP was a developing technology when he first started selling proteins, with a high-cost barrier to entry for most processors.

“The company I was working for started to discuss having products high-pressured,” he explains. “But really, at that time, the only realistic way to get HPP was to go get product toll-processed.”

Battles left the company in 2008 to build a food-brokering business that would focus heavily on HPP products, including a guacamole product imported from Mexico. Growth came quickly, spurred on by the popularity of the technology. When Battles would get an audience with a retailer to pitch his products, the conversation would often turn to the overall capabilities of HPP technology. And Battles took advantage, becoming a champion of it.

“I would say, ‘HPP is great: You can do sausages, ham, fruits, etc.’ And the customers would ask to see those products,” he explains. “Well, at that point, I had to say, ‘Let me get back to you.’”

Those meetings with the retailers laid a foundation upon which Battles developed solid relationships. Further, as the popularity of HPP grew, Battles began to hatch a plan to bring the technology to the Dallas area — an obvious choice, given its logistical advantage over Austin, his residence at that time.

“[Austin] didn’t make sense from a distribution perspective,” he says. “You look at Dallas in terms of getting most anywhere in the U.S. by truck, it’s a two-day haul or less.”

The more Battles discussed HPP with his retail contacts, the more he realized there was a supply/demand gap, and an opportunity for him to fill that gap.

“Retailers were even saying to processors, ‘If you have something high-pressured, bring it,’” he adds. “I saw an opportunity for quality toll-processing in a good strategic location.”

Just do it

Partnerships played a key role in the development of GL Foods from Day One, Battles explains. First, his father — and his “best investor” — Timothy J. Battles, helped him push through the initial plan, and has helped him throughout the entire process.

Kelley Battles’ first inclination was to get products toll-processed in another facility and shipped to him in Texas to display to his retailer customers. While discussing the logistics with his father, they decided that wasn’t going to be feasible for their product to travel that far.

“It came to a point that [my father] said, ‘Why don’t you just do it?’” Battles says. “So before I knew it, my father was my partner and investor, and here we are today.”

Battles knew he needed a strategist with business and production experience to really make GL Foods go, and he tapped Rick DeHerder to be that partner. DeHerder, who is also an investor in GL Foods, has an extensive retail and production history through a wide variety of retail and product companies, including Sears and Mattel. Battles says that GL Foods’ business plan is a reflection on DeHerder’s expertise and experience.

“It comes back to all of us pooling together our strengths,” he says. “They’re all complementary to each other.”

With the company’s leadership in place, it was time to source and build the facility, and Battles once again turned to his network of contacts, managing to extract as much value from the relationships he had cultivated during his years as a broker.

He points out that his relationships with Castle & Cooke Cold Storage and Avure Technologies -- a manufacturer of HPP systems -- have been integral to bringing GL Foods online and helping it thrive in its infancy. Battles says that the technical expertise and business leads that Avure brought him and the value-added services he can leverage being housed in a Castle & Cooke facility already have paid dividends to GL Foods.

They are relationships that he believes will help him quickly fine-tune the Coppell facility and replicate it in other regions of the U.S. down the road.

Customer service

While GL Foods has been operational for less than six months, it already has been a wild, roller-coaster ride.

“It’s been a breakneck pace, but with screeching brakes too,” Battles says of the first five months of production at the 23,000-square-foot facility. “It was boom, right out of the gate. Then, in January, all of a sudden, the brakes hit and brought us to a stop.”

Battles admits he is happy the company had a few weeks of slow time to catch up on some of the smaller, cosmetic-type projects that had to be delayed in the beginning — such as installation of hooks to hang mops and tools on, among other things.

“Is that earth-shattering or going to hurt my business?” he asks. “It won’t, but now we have those little things, and my pump room is organized like a kitchen.”

At presstime, GL Foods was preparing for production to ramp up again in March — anchored by the same customer that accounted for the majority of GL Foods’ capacity in late 2010. Battles knows his production schedule could fluctuate wildly, especially as HPP technology becomes more affordable and some processors move their business in-house, but he has other ideas to help temper some of the volatility.

Today, most typical HPP contract service providers accept packaged product, treat it with high pressure and ship it out the door, with a few value-added services in the realm of logistics, case-packing, labeling and the like. GL Foods currently follows that same model. Most of these companies, however, do not undertake front-end, pre-HPP handling of product — something GL Foods plans to do in order to differentiate itself in the marketplace.

This spring, GL Foods will be installing bagging systems, checkweighers, scales and metal detectors, so it can accept combo bins of product to be packaged, sent through the HPP system and put into master cases in the Coppell facility — all based on its customers’ requests.

The brand new, USDA-inspected clean room will run perpendicular to the HPP lines and will be completely separated from Coppell’s high-pressure processing area.

“It will give us the ability to do two things simultaneously because the clean room will keep them separate,” Battles says. “It gives us the ability to do co-packing. We can take bulk product, bag it and checkweigh it, all while high-pressuring something else.”

When his customers inquired about the feasibility of the project, Battles saw the expansion as a way to further solidify his relationships.

“It boils down to partnerships and commitments,” he says. “If they want us to do something, then we need reciprocation and a commitment that they’ll partner with us, and we’ve been fortunate to be involved with great partners so far.”

HPP at the core

Despite all this business diversification, GL Foods will not abandon HPP toll processing as its core offering. Battles and his partners continue to sell the service, and they hope to add more HPP lines to the Coppell facility as demand grows.

“This facility is 110 feet wide and 160 feet deep, and it’s a perfect fit for these machines,” he says. “We believe that three, maybe four lines is the magic number before we move on and drop this concept and model in a different location.”

Depending on the product, GL Foods’ single HPP line can handle about 350,000 pounds per week. Battles believes demand for more capacity will eventually force the addition of more lines.

“I have a lot of what I call ‘pregnant opportunities,’ by which I mean, they’re going to deliver, it’s just a matter of timing,” he explains. These opportunities, Battles says, have been both solicited by GL Foods and referred by his contacts.

“It’s been great to have contacts and people around me that know the business and can help by referring me to different folks,” he says. One of Battles’ close contacts, Pete Beckwith, senior vice president of sales for J Bar B Foods, believes GL Foods has adopted a good strategy of promoting the benefits of the technology with retailers.

“Now you have this buzz in the market on the technology, and you start to hear retailers say to processors, ‘If you have high-pressured products, let’s see them,’” Beckwith explains. “Then GL Foods can go to the processors and tell them, ‘We are within a couple hundred miles of your location, offering this service.’

“The retailers can be GL’s voice to the manufacturers, especially the ones he might not reach directly.”

Whether or not 2011 proves to be as successful for GL Foods as its first few months were, Battles appears to have a variety of options in front of him for his business — each one an attempt to capitalize on HPP technology and the relationships GL Foods parlays into new opportunities. Yet, for all his plans, Battles remains thankful for the success thus far and wary of the pitfalls of taking on too much, too quickly.

“The goal is to perfect this facility over a 24- to 36-month period, and then take that model to other regions,” he concludes. “It’s amazing how quickly things have come together and gone well, but I don’t want to grow too quickly and be a company that people say, ‘Woulda, coulda, shoulda, if they’d done it right the first time.’


Cargill’s ground-beef breakthrough


As high-pressure pasteurization (HPP) has grown through the years, the food industry as a whole has found it to be compatible with a wide variety of products. In the protein industry, too, compatibility across product varieties has been far-reaching.

However, ground beef always had been found to be incompatible with HPP. Justin N. Segel, president of American Pasteurization Co. (APC) in Milwaukee, Wis., knows the situation well, harkening back to his days at Emmpak Foods (now a part of Cargill).

“When we started [APC, in 2004], we kind of thought, ‘Wow, it would be interesting if someone would test ground beef,’” he says. “Cargill was one of our first customers with roast beef, a pre-cooked product, and to their credit, they kind of picked up the challenge and started sending ground beef product in to test.”

In late February, Cargill introduced its new Fressure brand of ground beef patties, which have double the shelf life of traditional fresh burgers and benefit from the enhanced food safety that HPP brings to the table. Brent Wolke, vice president of Cargill’s Wichita, Kan.-based foodservice meat business, called the Fressure product a “technological breakthrough.”

During a visit to the APC facility by The National Provisioner, Segel discussed the challenges that faced ground beef in terms of applying HPP technology.

“High pressure tends to denature the product, changing it to a dramatically lighter color,” Segel explains. “If you just take ground beef and run it under [standard HPP] parameters, it’s a safe product and you get some shelf life, but it looks more like veal and tastes more like meatloaf.”

Faced with that challenge, Segel adds, many processors could not commit the time or resources to the R&D needed to solve the problem.

“To Cargill’s credit, they wanted to know how they were going to make it work,” he says. “They weren’t going to accept that it just wouldn’t work. Two years of testing later, they did crack the code.”

Segel says APC is seeing more processors willing to invest in the research and development needed to formulate protein products that can withstand the rigors of HPP. And his facility, the first to offer HPP contract services in the U.S., welcomes processors who want to test their products and “finesse” the formulations to get a high-quality, safe product with an improved shelf life. The APC team has worked with many processors in the past on these types of projects and expects to continue. As for Cargill’s Fressure product, Segel says it may be just the first of many breakthrough initiatives.

“We’re starting to see more companies experimenting with raw meats and raw, marinated meats,” Segel says. “We’re doing a variety of party trays and products like that, where in the past one item had a shelf life that would expire the whole tray before the other parts.

“This is a brave new frontier,” he says.