High choice

by Steve Kay
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Think High Choice and Greater Omaha Packing comes to mind. This Midwestern-based, privately owned business specializes in producing high-quality beef for top restaurants all around the world. That’s the reason the company has significantly expanded and prospered in recent years while other privately owned firms have cashed out or left the beef-processing business.

Greater Omaha is proving there is a way for smaller packers to run with the big boys. For many items it markets, it doesn’t even compete with the “Big four.” It has carved out its own niche, based on sourcing the highest-quality cattle money can buy from what it calls “the Mother Lode” of the Corn Belt. Greater Omaha buys most of its cattle from within a 200-mile radius. Many of the animals are from smaller farmer-feeders it has dealt with for years, and they benefit from their proximity to the center of the most plentiful supply of corn in the world.

It helps that these cattle are nearly all English breeds, either Angus or Hereford. Greater Omaha sells beef under its own name and brands including: Omaha Natural Angus, Platte River Ranch, 1881 Omaha Hereford Beef and 1920 Omaha Natural Angus Beef. It also produces private-label products and for the Certified Angus Beef and Certified Hereford Beef programs.

Changing with the times

The company has also embraced change. After selling only carcass beef for years, it moved to boxed beef production in 1992 and later, in 2001, began offering case-ready product. The firm’s customer base is more foodservice-focused than retail. It exports beef to as many as 45 countries. Greater Omaha dedicates certain parts of its business to each customer, says executive vice president Angelo Fili.

Founded in 1920, Greater Omaha was a small operation for many years. But in 2010, it ranked No. 6 with a daily capacity of 2,900 head, annual slaughter of 785,000 head and annual sales of $1.1 billion. It now is the fourth-largest beef exporter in the US.

To achieve this phenomenal growth, Greater Omaha embarked on an ambitious two-stage expansion in the mid-1990s. It built an updated, 185,000-sq.-ft. fabrication plant in 1996 on land not far from where its slaughter plant was. It then built what was regarded as a futuristic new slaughter floor in 2000 attached to its fabrication plant. Now it has begun construction to add 40,000 sq. ft. to its fabrication plant to produce a number of new beef products.

The firm spent $6 million on food-safety equipment alone. The kill floor is divided into five stainless-steel cocoons, each with its own filtered air supply, and includes 12 separate processes for pathogen reduction.

“When the slaughter floor was built, it was significantly oversized to accommodate new food-safety equipment as it became available,” says president Henry Davis. “Consequently, our food-safety processes are constantly changing and improving.”

Davis and Fili say challenges are ever changing. The industry is currently faced with a proposed GIPSA regulation that would jeopardize the current marketing premiums paid for high-end cattle that flourish in the Corn Belt. In the food-safety arena, if any contaminant is declared an adulterant for which there is not a rapid test, all producers of beef in the industry could face unpreventable recalls, they say.

Greater Omaha tries to magnify all advantages it may have in an industry dominated by so few, including the ability to be extremely flexible in all aspects of business.

“The daily direction of the company, as well as our long-term plans, are determined only by key management members, all of which participate in the operation of the company every day,” they say.

Steve Kay is editor and publisher of Petaluma, Calif.-based Cattle Buyers Weekly (www.cattlebuyersweekly.com).
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