A little more than a year ago, West Liberty Foods created a buzz, announcing the successful certification of its Tremonton, Utah, plant as a landfill-free facility, and the soon-to-follow certification of its Mount Pleasant and West Liberty, Iowa, locations as well. Earlier this year, West Liberty Foods invited media to its West Liberty headquarters to celebrate the entire company being certified landfill-free.
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However, as the company put the finishing touches on its landfill-free certification, and fielded numerous calls seeking guidance on attaining such a status, the West Liberty growth story had not begun hibernating.
In fact, the train has continued to roll along — with more innovation and expansion on tap.
Like many protein processors, West Liberty Foods has had its finger on the pulse of high-pressure pasteurization (HPP) for years. But until its customers began to warm up to the benefits of the technology, the processor did not see a good return on any potential investment in HPP.
“We kept it on our radar screen and continued to look at it,” says Ed Garrett, president and CEO of West Liberty Foods. “[Eventually,] customers were talking about clean-label products, removing some inhibitor ingredients and extending shelf life, all while making sure, of course, the food remains safe.”
Thus, West Liberty Foods made the decision to invest in HPP as an offering for its customers (as opposed to a requirement), giving them another benefit they can pass along to their end users, adds Lee Johnson, vice president of technical services for West Liberty Foods.
“For natural and clean-label products, it can be rather difficult to control food safety without any additives for as long a shelf life that most customers want,” he says. “HPP allows us to deliver clean-label products, and [the cost] has come down a little. Ultimately, the consumers are demanding more out of the products that they are getting, and you have to deliver to stay competitive.”
The commitment of West Liberty Foods to produce a highly safe product has been well-documented in the past — and HPP gives that reputation a boost, according to Garrett.
“With the way we design and operate our plants, we produce a very, very safe sliced product day-in and day-out, so the main driver for HPP wasn’t to make our product safer,” he admits. “Of course, it’s always extra nice to have that extra hurdle in the food-safety program, but this was really adopted to offer products without the use of inhibitors and give a new product offering.”
By the time one of West Liberty Foods’ primary customers approached the company with an idea to HPP its product, West Liberty Foods already knew the requirements — and given the sheer volume of product that would need to be processed, Johnson says, West Liberty Foods decided to bring HPP in-house.
“I just didn’t see [toll-processing] as logistically making sense,” he says. “There is no way for anyone else to keep up with the kind volume that we were running, and then the additional trucking costs would have added up.”
The Tremonton facility and the Mount Pleasant facility were targeted for HPP equipment installation, and construction began. Tremonton now has two HPP machines (which were custom-designed by the supplier to house the pump room directly above the vessel), and Mount Pleasant has one machine.
Despite the many innovative maneuvers West Liberty Foods has made over the years, and to the credit of its employees, both Garrett and Gerald Lessard, vice president and COO of West Liberty Foods, ranked the installation and startup of the HPP machines among the best and easiest in which they’ve been involved.
Tremonton train keeps rolling
In West Liberty Foods’ Tremonton, Utah, facility, the construction of the high-pressure pasteurization room was expansion No. 3 for the facility — yet during The National Provisioner’s visit, editor-in-chief Andy Hanacek (center) was given an exclusive tour of the nearly completed fourth expansion at the plant by Morgan Robertson (left), operations manager, and Ted Richards (right), plant engineer.
The expansion includes raw-materials cooler space, processing space including cooking and chilling capacity, and new welfare areas for employees. The new areas were expected to be fully operational in September 2013, though many of them were already in use upon Hanacek’s visit.
“The acceptance of the new technology and the equipment has been overwhelming by the team; they embraced it,” Lessard explains. “It wasn’t a situation where we had a lot of challenges associated with startups and ongoing operation of the equipment. It’s actually been very clean.”
During the planning and construction stages, West Liberty Foods put together a cross-functional team that included operations, accounting, quality assurance, maintenance and purchasing employees to learn and ask questions, so the entire team would be prepared for anything when it was time to run.
“Everybody was involved in the discussions and answering questions, so when it came time to fire up and make that transition, we were ready to run,” Lessard says. Maintenance training, he adds, likely posed the biggest learning curve, but as with all the HPP employee positions, West Liberty Foods moved current employees who were interested in moving to HPP into those roles, so the company knew the skillset and work ethic it was getting from those employees.
“From a training standpoint, there are [numerous] details that need to be looked after when dealing with a machine that puts out 87,000 psi of pressure,” he says.
“Maintenance has to be very much on top of its game, and in Tremonton and Mount Pleasant, the maintenance employees have taken full ownership of the equipment.”
It is a workforce culture that stems from the fact, Garrett says, that the company views its customers’ brands and labels as its own — and will do whatever it can to protect those brands.
“We want to be able to offer full control and a full line of processing, so we decided to get into HPP in a pretty big way — that’s why we started with three units,” Garrett explains. “We tell customers, if they really want to make that step, we can deliver it, and we feel that we can at the lowest cost because it is in our facility, we don’t put the extra miles on it, and we don’t put the extra handling of the product — we’re giving them options.”
HPP has given West Liberty Foods options as well. During The National Provisioner’s visit to Tremonton in August, Garrett relayed the news of a new product — chicken salad — that West Liberty Foods would be producing, continuing the company’s evolution from a strictly meat-slicing business.
“We’re a food company that will react to our customers on what they need, when they need it,” he says, “and we’ll look at anything related to food even though it might be outside our wheelhouse.
“This new chicken-salad product is your mom’s chicken salad — made of basic ingredients you have in your fridge at home, with no inhibitors — and it can be made here because of the HPP process,” Garrett adds.
Other products related to HPP are on the docket, according to Garrett, but had not been announced or finalized by presstime. Furthermore, while West Liberty Foods isn’t pushing its customers to adopt HPP for its products, the processor does have space to add HPP lines if demand continues to rise for the process.
“We are not saying you have to have it because it’s the way of the future,” Garrett concludes. “I think it is going to allow the industry to clean up its labels, present a more robust product and feel good about it being safe, but we have to let our customers make that decision.”