Quest for quality

by Kimberlie Clyma
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Danny Ramirez, quality control assistant, Washington Beef
Retirement continues to elude meat industry lifer Danny Ramirez, quality control assistant. Ramirez has dedicated 34 years of his career to Washington Beef.

Danny Ramirez keeps promising his wife they’ll go on a vacation sometime soon or that perhaps he’ll think about retiring instead. But then something keeps getting in the way of fulfilling those promises. At 61 years-old, Ramirez loves his job, and he doesn’t want to stop working. “I like getting up and coming to work every morning,” Ramirez says. And after 34 years with Washington Beef, he can’t see changing that routine any time soon.

Danny started working at the Washington Beef processing plant in Toppenish, Wash., in 1980. The Washington Beef plant was purchased by Boise, Idaho-based Agri Beef Co. in 2003. Founded in 1968, Agri-Beef also owns feedlots in Idaho, Kansas and Moses Lake, Wash., and manufactures its own feed supplements. The company supplies most of the cattle that is processed at the Toppenish plant. The plant produces more than 200 million lbs. of boxed beef annually, as well as a variety of by-products including: hides for leather, tallow for bio-fuel production, meat and bone meal for organic fertilizers, pet foods and poultry feed, as well as dried blood for organic fertilizers and fish feed.

For 26 years, Ramirez worked on the fabrication line at Washington Beef. Then eight years ago, Ramirez looked for a new challenge. “I wanted to try something new,” he says. “And my arms were getting tired from working on the line for so many years.” Ramirez switched gears and moved to the quality assurance side of the operation; his title is now QA quality control assistant.

“My current job was hard at the beginning because I was not trained in QA, and had to go through a lot of training and hard work to learn my job,” he says. But thanks to his passion for the animals and commitment to the job, he quickly turned into a respected and valued member of the QA team.

“Danny plays a very important role in our QA department,” says Juan Rodriquez, processing and carcass cooler QA supervisor. “His experience and knowledge make him a great source for ideas and innovations.”

Passion and pride

As a member of the quality-assurance team, Ramirez audits the trucks delivering cattle to the Washington Beef plant. All carriers are regularly audited for humane animal handling. Part of Ramirez’s day-to-day quality assurance job is educating the truck drivers on proper animal-handling techniques and ways in which they can improve the well-being of the cattle while in transit.

“One of my passions is working with the cattle and taking care of them...making sure they are treated well, and having respect for them, even before they are slaughtered,” he says. “It really makes me feel like I am making a difference,” says Ramirez describing his relationship with the cattle. “Sometimes I just whistle and they file right off the truck.”

Five years ago, his position as quality control assistant didn’t even exist at the Washington Beef plant, but as the plant increased its emphasis on food-safety intervention there was a need for quality assurance through all stages of processing. “We developed a lot of new auditing programs that did not used to exist,” Ramirez explains. “Juan, my supervisor, really pushes me to do my best all the time. We communicate a lot and we are always working together to find new and better ways to execute our jobs.”

Washington Beef employs a 24-step food-safety intervention program, which begins when the animals are unloaded from the trucks. Step one is a wash-down of the animals in the holding pen.

“We all have to make sure the product quality is the highest it can be,” Ramirez says. “I have to make sure all the cattle are as clean as they can be and that they are being handled correctly.”

The plant uses pen designs and protocols designed by Dr. Temple Grandin (such as s-curves and lighting to reduce shadows) to keep the animals calm and under less stress before slaughter. These procedures help ensure better-quality meat post-slaughter.

Years of dedication

Working in quality control requires a close eye and a constant attention to detail. “I have to make the extra effort to see the little things. Make sure everyone is handling the cattle right at all times, that everyone is being clean and organized, and that takes a lot of attention to detail,” Ramirez explains. “My job is to make sure the right procedure is done every single day. To make sure there is nothing different, so that we are always making the best product.”

Food safety and quality control has always been a company-wide initiative at Washington Beef. In 2011, the Toppenish plant completed its Food Safety System Certification (FSSC) 22000, meeting the requirements of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). The international certification was developed specifically for food manufacturers that process animal products and their food safety protocols. The plant has also been ISO 9001:2000 certified since 2006.

“We have really improved over time with our audits and programs,” Danny explains. “Right now we are ahead of the game, but we need to make sure that even though we are ahead of the game, we don’t fall behind and become complacent in our auditing and QA procedures.” According to Danny, quality-control work is really never done.

After 34 years of service with the company, Ramirez’s work is still not done. “As you can tell by his length of service to Agri-Beef and Washington Beef, he is very committed to his job,” Rodriquez says. “He is a very hard-working man who is devoted to his work and family; very friendly and respectful to all,” he adds.

His commitment to his job is second only to his commitment to his family. When he’s not on the job, Ramirez spends time with his wife of 34 years, his four grown children and his grandchildren. “We like to go to movies and watch football,” he says. “I have eight grandchildren that really keep me busy. It is really nice because they all live fairly close, so we get to see them often.”

It’s the best of both worlds for Ramirez. “My wife always asks me when we can take a vacation, but I always say, ‘Do we have to?’ I like getting up and coming to work every morning,” he says.

When Ramirez’s day of retirement finally arrives, he hopes to be remembered at Washington Beef as someone “that did my job day in and day out,” he says. “In my position, it’s important to have everything go right, every day.”

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