Food-safety focused

by Bryan Salvage
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Having worked their entire careers in the industry and cutting meat in plants for many years before becoming executives, Henry Davis, president and CEO of privately owned Greater Omaha Packing Co. Inc. and son of former company president Pennie Davis, and Henry’s right-hand man Angelo Fili, executive vice president, are undeniably seasoned pros. Henry has always been a visionary. In April 1992, for example, he decided to evolve the company from a carcass processor into a boxed beef and value-added processor.

Looking back, Davis and Fili agree a lot has changed during their 20 years of working together – but nothing has changed more than what motivates the industry today.

“I started working here full-time after graduating from college in 1973,” Davis reminisces. “Back in the 70s and 80s, meat companies were motivated by dollars and cents. But for the last 15 years, enhancing food safety has motivated us. If you do food safety right, everything else falls into place. If you don’t, you may not have a place to work the next morning.”

Approximately 40 packers previously existed in Omaha. “We have very few here today,” Davis points out. “Many didn’t realize food safety had to be their absolute No 1 priority.”

GOP’s commitment to food safety is exemplified in its policies, mission statement and current custom-built harvesting/fabrication/corporate office complex located on the site of the now extinct Omaha stockyards. Today, floor space is approximately 225,000 sq. ft., including 170,000 sq. ft. in the harvesting facility and about 60,000 in the fab room.

GOP’s then-new slaughter plant opened on July 7, 2000. Increasing daily production capacity to 2,500 head, this plant and its fab plant were designed to satisfy EU import standards – even though the EU wasn’t accepting US beef at that time due to the US’ use of hormones in cattle – as well as to enhance food safety, humane animal handling, worker safety and production efficiencies.

On April 6, 1996, GOP opened its new fab plant. This more efficient, larger processing facility allowed it to increase daily head capacity from 800 to 1,400 head, which helps the company to compete more effectively in domestic and global markets. Nine lines are stationed in the fab room, which employs about 500 workers. Three-hundred work on the harvesting floor. The fab plant runs one processing shift and two cleaning shifts six days a week.

Premium products
GOP is laser-focused on producing consistently trimmed, fresh, refrigerated boxed-beef primals plus a line of frozen offals. Beef brands include Omaha Natural Angus Beef, Certified Angus Brand Beef, Greater Omaha Brand Beef, Certified Hereford Beef, and 1881 Omaha Hereford Beef.

The company sells to high-end chain stores, distributors and steak-cutters, and it also sells plenty of raw material for grinding. Finished products take only two days to be distributed by truck to customers on either coast. GOP buys primarily Black Angus cattle, but some Hereford, as well.

GOP processes about 2 percent [2,500 head] of the 100,000 head of cattle processed daily in the US and sells to markets throughout the world. “We’re a mid-size packer in an industry dominated by several large corporations. Our size and flexibility help us respond quickly to customers,” Davis says.

Each animal defines GOP’s customer base, Fili explains. The legs go to grinding; roasts such as the chuck and round go into grocery stores; and steak items go to restaurants and export.

Since the 1990s, GOP has worked with Trex Corp. to grow its exports. “As exports got bigger, we got together with Mark Melnick at Trex Corp,” Davis says. He develops customer relations, and comes back to GOP with leads and orders.

Business is good
During the last three years, GOP has achieved more than $1 billion per year in sales. But Davis says he isn’t interested in racking up more sales or processing more head per day. “Our interest is in putting out the best, safest product,” he says. “We want to increase the value of products and do more work for our customers.”

To keep up with demand and better prepare for the future, GOP is currently building a 100,000 sq. ft. expansion – half for the fab room and half for the packaging area. The expansion will allow GOP to satisfy all customers for whatever type of product and packaging they demand.

“This two-floor addition will make more room for new box-making equipment and enhance product traceability,” Fili says. “Many customers have different demands, like organic or natural products, and many of those demands present new packaging [and labeling] challenges. Greater Omaha is one of the last butcher-packers in the US.”

Today’s customers want more, smaller, single-muscle cuts, Davis says. “We’re the perfect company to satisfy such demands,” he adds. “We sell to 50 countries and each has unique demands and product needs. Being a mid-size packer, it’s a perfect match for us.”

Over the decades, Greater Omaha Packing Co.’s former harvesting and fab plants underwent many additions to keep up with demand. But by the mid-1990s, it became apparent to Davis and Fili that USDA demands were changing while slaughter, fabrication and food-safety technologies continued evolving. They also determined they couldn’t utilize the latest technologies and continue processing the same number of cattle at their existing facilities.

“It was impossible because everything needed more space,” Davis says.

An intervention such as a hot-water cabinet requires 30-40 feet of space – and to find that space in a plant built in the 70s was not possible, Fili says.

When plans for the USDA’s new meat and poultry equipment certification program were announced, which resulted in the agency discontinuing its 22-year-old mandatory prior approval of equipment and utensils in 1997 in an effort to remove conflicting regulations when HACCP was introduced industrywide, GOP sprang into action.

“At that point, we knew there were going to be major changes so we started buying this property and laid out the fab plant and continued designing the cattle-processing floor,” Davis says.

Expert input
GOP’s new harvesting and fab floors were designed with major input from Davis, Fili and department foremen. “We’re not engineers,” Davis says, “but we’ve worked on plant floors for many years. We collectively accumulated a tremendous amount of practical knowledge.”

Those years of experience show in the plant’s operation and design. Stainless-steel catwalks suspend from the ceilings over the brightly lit harvesting and fab floors, giving supervisors and customers a bird’s-eye view of the operations.

Size mattered when planning the floors. The new harvesting floor was more than twice the size of what was needed at the time. “We designed in extra room for future food-safety equipment and systems,” Davis explains. “When we opened the new harvest floor, you could literally play soccer on it.”

Eleven years later, 30 percent of that extra space now contains food-safety interventions such as sprays, vacuums and steam equipment and there is still plenty of room to modify the floor as necessary, Davis says. GOP also provided extra space when designing and building its fab floor. The company intends to stay ahead of fabrication production demands. “We designed this plant so it could facilitate changes in the industry without compromising production and food safety,” Davis says. “Putting in a major piece of equipment in an existing plant requires a major redesign. At the plant we closed in 1999, it was impossible to retrofit any more.”

Maximizing food safety
GOP’s harvesting plant incorporates the latest and best technologies available to control pathogens. It employs a multi-hurdle concept with 12 separate processes, each of which is a validated pathogen intervention procedure. Intervention steps include controlled atmosphere, steam vacuums, hot water and acid rinse cabinets and steam-pasteurization cabinets, among others. Used in a multiple-hurdle configuration, they are extremely effective, both men say.

Maintaining worker safety is equally important. For example, after stunning and bleeding, cutters making cuts on elevated platforms are attached to lanyards to prevent falls. And line workers perform fewer cuts, which enhances the cuts and value of the animal while helping prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. Yet maintaining food safety is always front and center. After each cut, knives are sanitized.

A hot-water wash and lactic-acid wash were installed immediately after hide removal. “After removing the liver and some of the offals, steam units were also installed. Henry wanted to double-up on these food-safety processes,” Fili says.

After automatic hide removal, each carcass is washed in hot water and an organic acid rinse. “We installed two wash spots instead of one,” Fili says.

The cattle-processing floor contains seven individual compartments featuring stainless-steel walls extending from floor to ceiling. Air is controlled to ensure the lowest air pressure is where live cattle enter the plant and the highest air pressure is where carcasses enter the cooler. The cooler, which features a walking-beam system, tracks and holds up to 8,000 carcasses.

Prior to fabrication, carcasses undergo a two-day chill. This is a major advantage for food safety, grading, production and processing, Davis says.

Precise grading is accomplished using a vision-system camera. “The system is one of the first implemented in the industry,” Fili says. “I’ve seen the results from that camera in direct conjunction with USDA graders over a five-year period and they’re almost dead on with one another. We’re one of the highest-grading plants in the US.”

After exiting the cooler, carcasses enter the fab room and pass through a lactic acid cabinet. “We’re one of a few facilities with a lactic cabinet at the start of fab,” Fili says.

Carcasses are disassembled into various cuts and there’s a line for chucks, rounds, ribs and loins. Trim has its own belts. About 10 feet separates each line to maximize worker and food safety.

“We also built the facility so we can trace animals to satisfy a European production system; you must be able to trace animals back to the farm and we can,” Fili says.

All products bound for grinding are sprayed with organic acid. And after each belt rolls over, it’s sanitized. All packaging materials and box-making, the latter of which has its own air supply, are separated from the fab area.

Air and vacuum pumps plus motors are located on the roof or in basement. All utilities come up through the floor. The plant doesn’t have condensation problems created by temperature differentials from warm water and hot water due to its climate control system, Davis says.

Davis and Fili visited facilities in various industries and countries to design in and maximize food safety in their new harvesting and fab plants, but Davis adds, “If people don’t execute their jobs properly – we have nothing.”

During construction, Davis boosted refrigeration capabilities by up to 50 percent to prepare for future needs. GOP also increased insulation in the roof and walls by 50 percent. And the harvesting plant contains four boilers, although engineers said only one was needed. “We do the same amount of cattle and now use less water,” Davis says.

Any potential downtime problems foreseen were designed out of the new plants...whether it was optimizing refrigeration or utilities, Davis says. “We have had a great payback,” he adds.

Computers operate all utilities and ramp them in and correlate the demand with the supply, which is another big advantage, Davis says.

“We haven’t had many discussions on downtime in the last 20 years,” Fili says. “When a system is taken off for maintenance, no one even knows it.”

A clean plant is a safe plant. Some plants utilize large, overhead jack shafts to drive lines, which contain oil, grease, dust, dirt and grime, Davis says. “On our floor, there are small, blue motors [used by the auto manufacturing industry] instead of overhead shafts,” he adds. “They’re small, computer-controlled, electronic gear boxes driving shorter lines. Consequently, we have a cleaner plant.”

When designing the harvesting floor, extra training space was factored in. “Someone new can’t just jump in on the line and start to remove a hide or gut cattle at normal line speed,” Davis says. “So, we have staging areas to teach people how to do various jobs. This is a great asset for the company, food safety and for employees wanting to move into higher-scale, higher-paying jobs.”

GOP’s customers used to buy products based on perceived quality and price per pound, Davis says. Today, customers demand low generic bacteria counts first and foremost. “We have low bacteria counts,” Davis says. “Price has become less of an issue. That’s what we tried to accomplish here and it has paid off.”

After food-safety tests are run on finished products, nothing is released until test results come back negative. Microbial testing is performed by a world-renowned third-party, AOAC-approved-and-accredited laboratory. Comprehensive food-safety audits are also conducted by a third-party, international leader in food safety.

Animal-welfare focused
GOP is a pioneer in humane animal handling. Dr. Temple Grandin, who helped design GOP’s current harvesting facility, had just received her Ph.D. when she was first hired by Pennie Davis, who was then president, to help ensure humane animal handling was maintained at GOP’s harvesting plant.

“My dad said to us, ‘This is Temple Grandin. She’s an expert in animal handling. I want her to review our plant and make sure we’re handling the cattle as best we can,’” Davis recalls. “At that time, we were more in a production mentality and she was a young girl right out of college. Temple is a genius. I commend my dad for having that foresight. She taught us to see animals and animal handling her way – the right way.”

“She defined how to handle cattle correctly,” Fili adds. Humane animal handling audits are conducted by various expert businesses in this field.

New product development is customer-driven. “If a company wants something new,” Davis says, “all they need to do is give us a fair price and we’ll make it for them [if it’s feasible and has a good chance for success].”

New product development is fueling current plant expansion, Fili says. “There are more questions involved now with making much smaller, single-muscle cuts,” he says. “Many people want packaging that may involve labor for their specific company or store. Every customer brings their own new product ideas, but we aren’t looking for short-term ideas.”

Even GOP’s modern corporate offices are extraordinary. “We won an international award for the design of the corporate offices [in which an entry was submitted by the architect],” Fili says. “It was almost comical because we spent 99.9 percent of our time designing the plants.”

Davis iterates his late father, Pennie, who joined company founder and Pennie’s father-in-law Herman Cohen, as a partner at Greater Omaha Packing in 1945. He later became company president, played a major role in the company’s success and provided Henry with great guidance and feedback.

“I’d confide in different issues with him,” Davis says. “I was very fortunate to have his encouragement. He passed away in 2002. If he were here today, he’d say, ‘Keep on doing what you’re doing.’”

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