Smarter processing

by Steve Dittmer
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Sugar
A worker pushes a rack of pork bellies into a smokehouse at SugarCreek, where information technology is vital part to the company's daily operations.
 

As consumers continue to demand more consistency, higher quality, increased safety, more options and more convenience, some folks are demanding more from their processing – and getting it through technology. Ed Rodden’s advantage is that he has a new plant with the latest technology designed in, the flexibility to add more capability as it comes on line and past experience with manufacturing to tight specs and smaller tolerances.

SugarCreek’s new Indiana facility has not only allowed the company to do better at what it has always done, it is leading them into new ventures. SugarCreek has always been an independent custom processor, co-packing for national brands and providing private label products to specifications. Without the pressures of developing its own brands, the company could concentrate on providing just what the customer company wanted. Starting in 1966, with a plant in Washington Court House, Ohio, SugarCreek carved out a position specializing in bacon processing.

As bacon achieved its present fashionable status, SugarCreek added two plants in Cincinnati, one in Dayton and one in Kansas. Along the way, it developed an off-site lab, staffed with 10 food safety specialists and quality control experts, monitoring a stream of pathogen tests, temperature, fat and moisture readings. SugarCreek had become the nation’s largest independent bacon processor, with an impressive leadership team under second- generation owner, John Richardson.

In 2015, SugarCreek made a big move – a $130 million, 418,000-sq.-ft. plant in Cambridge City, Indiana, that utilized everything the company had learned about food processing, all the new proven technology they could build in and plans to add even more technological capabilities. This plant is designed to take SugarCreek “beyond bacon,” so to speak, to processing and cooking all types and species of protein plus other foods.

Sugar
SugarCreek's reputation as a reliable co-packer of quality bacon products remains the backbone of its business as it grows into new segments in the future.
 

Sous vide solutions

While the plant does have conventionallcooking capabilties, Chief Information Officer (CIO) Rodden is most excited about a newer process SugarCreek has perfected. While not everything can be automated, SugarCreek has found ways to highly automate the “sous vide” process and adapt it to many different food products. Developed by French chefs, the food item is vacuum sealed in film and lowered into hot water – 132˚ to 140˚ F, depending on product type – a lower temperature, slower-cooking approach to perfectly cooked food. Temperature controlled to within 0.10 degrees eliminates overcooking. And because nothing or no one touches the food once it goes in the bag, several potential sources of contamination are eliminated. They are processing everything from beef to poultry to fish and seafood in commercial quantities this way.

Cooking in a sealed film results in a high quality product, retaining moisture and enhancing flavor, tenderness and texture. However, the largest benefit to sous vide cooking is the consistency it offers.

The interesting thing for SugarCreek is that technology and automation allow them to process in large quantities, but also because of the precision control and monitoring, to profitably process small quantities for either smaller customers or for shorter runs of a larger array of variations of products for big brands. SugarCreek sees the industry moving from large product runs to smaller, shorter runs of more specialized products and ready-to-eat items.

As for the big runs, the Indiana plant has 10 sous vide cooking tanks, served by an automated gantry system to load and unload the whole array, if necessary. At 8,000 to 10,000 lbs. per tank, that’s 80,000 to 100,000 lbs. of food at one run.

 Cooking
The interior of one of the 10 cooking tanks for the sous vide process has an 8,000 to 10,000-lb. capacity. 
 

The sous vide process opens up all kinds of possibilities, so SugarCreek has assembled a team of corporate chefs to explore new products and recipes their customers could use, the kind of advances SugarCreek is calling “Brandworthy Food Solutions.” To demonstrate the difference in quality sous vide offers, SugarCreek’s Culinary and R&D teams will co-develop recipes with customers using their in-house test kitchen. Dishes are then presented to customers for tasting and commercialization planning.

Another advantage to the sous vide method includes “cleaner” labels. Sous vide requires fewer or no preservatives, resulting in a fresher, high quality product.

Rodden mentioned other changes that his company and the sous vide approach could help his customers adapt to. The big brand name food companies are finding brand names are not as important as they used to be. Now, they need to satisfy changing tastes more quickly. Rodden sees SugarCreek as positioned to be part of his customer’s product development teams.

These changes contributed to SugarCreek’s owner going out on a limb and investing a lot of money into their new plant. The flexible but food safety-conscious design allows raw prep separation, separation by species and three cooking halls for different cooking processes.

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