Master adapter

by Bryan Salvage
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For a vertically integrated chicken processor to thrive for almost a century in the U.S. poultry industry, its leadership team must be experts at every level of its operation. Coupling that expertise with the latest in-plant technology and well-trained employees can ensure operational success. Meanwhile, a business strategy that accommodates diverse product offerings to maintain corporate growth also helps to achieve success.

But continuing success also requires an unwavering commitment from the top down regarding worker safety, product quality and food safety – and adapting to changing market realties and customer demand on a dime. One leading poultry processor possessing all of these traits is Seaford, Del.-based Allen Family Foods Inc.

“Allen’s has been a family-owned company since 1919,” says Thomas Miller, 22-year industry veteran and vice president of support services. “We combine the pride of the family and the community with the live-by motto of ‘The Quality Chicken People’ to provide a complete case-ready, storebranded poultry program to several different retailers.”

Miller is responsible for corporate engineering, wastewater treatment systems, JCR Enterprises Inc. (the company’s Linkwood, Md.-based rendering complex run by Ernie Wroten, plant manager), corporate purchasing and corporate transportation.

“There were once 13 poultry companies operating in Delaware, but now there are only five – Allen Family Foods, Perdue Farms, Mountaire Farms, Amick Farms and Tyson Foods,” says John Pastrana, vice president of operations and 31-year industry veteran who has been with Allen’s for six months. His primary responsibility includes overseeing Allen’s processing plants. “My major priority is making sure we have a safe workplace,” he adds. “The second priority is to produce a quality product that meets our customers’ expectations, which includes superior customer service, consistent ontime deliveries and satisfying order-fill rates. My third priority is production, which involves our efficiencies, yields, costs and more.

“The culture we’re trying to create at Allen’s is to take care of our people by creating a safe workplace, consistently produce a quality product and offer consistent, superior customer service. When you satisfy that philosophy, everything falls together,” Pastrana says.

As the company’s Web site (www. allenfamilyfoods.com) and its managers proclaim, “The Quality Chicken People” is both the company’s slogan and business philosophy. Charles “Chick” Allen III, grandson of founders Charles C. and Nellie G. Allen, is company chairman while Bob Turley is president and CEO. Joining Allen’s in 2009, Turley began his career as president and general manager of Carolina Turkeys before joining Perdue Farms as its president and COO and as a member of their board of directors. He retired from Perdue in March of 2008.

“Bob Turley has brought an extensive knowledge with his more than 40 years of experience in live production, plant operations and retail sales,” Miller says. “Mr. Turley is a proven leader; one his greatest strengths is building strong management teams.”

The company employs and contracts more than 4,000 people at locations in Delaware, Maryland and N. Carolina. It processes approximately 2.2 million birds and packs about 10 million lbs. of finished products per week –totaling more than 500 million lbs. of poultry products per year.

Along with breeding and hatchery facilities, feed mills and processing plants, its operations include a farming division that produces feed grains, 28 company-owned growout farms and coordination of more than 300 independent growout farms. Its highly automated milling facility in Seaford, Del. produces more than 12 million lbs. of feed per week.

Quality products
Allen Family Foods offers a wide range of retail private-label chicken products including rotisserie, prime-parts, traypack products and whole birds. Product distribution reaches as far west as Ohio, up to New England and down to Florida. Products are also exported to Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

Broilers are transported to one of Allen’s two plants for processing:

• The Cordova, Md. facility processes whole birds with giblets and whole shells without giblets. This facility debones and makes foodservice cutup products, specializing in portion control and seasoned products for the rotisserie market.

• Allen’s upgraded and expanding Harbeson, Del. facility focuses on retail private-label processing parts, primarily deboned breasts, whole breasts, wings, legs, drumsticks and thighs, into both tray-pack and bulk packaging for several supermarket chains. Allen’s former Hurlock, Md. processing plant, hatchery and the Delmar feed mill were sold in June to Amick Farms LLC. This facility was Allen’s large-bird plant, processing broilers for deboned breasts, chicken parts and leg quarters. Some of these products are now being processed at the Harbeson facility.

“The sale of the Hurlock facility plus the expansion at Harbeson, Del. will allow us to become a leaner, more efficient company with a focus of capitalizing on growth opportunities as a premier supplier of retail and deli products,” Miller says.

Allen’s 2010 annual sales are projected to be $415 million with the addition of its antibiotic-free (ABF) and Allen’s Just Right Portions product lines.

Flagship Harbeson plant
Built in 1950, the Harbeson, Del. plant was acquired by Allen’s in 1988. It has grown through various expansions to its current size of 193,101 sq. ft., which includes 29,000 sq. ft. of cooler space and 56,500 sq. ft. of production space.

In terms of capacity, 210 birds per minute (12,500 per hour) are processed on one kill line. The facility also operates two Nuova evisceration lines; two cut-up lines, which feed 12 overwrap lines; and seven weigh/ price/labeling lines. Pastrana and Jim Quinton, director of processing, manage this facility, which employs more than 1,100 employees.

Allen’s executives recognize the importance of investing in their facilities. “From 2003 to 2005, this company has spent $30 million on [upgrading and expanding] the Harbeson complex,” Miller says. The plant’s most recent equipment acquisitions include a Stork high-speed Nuova line, Ossid overwrap machines and a Multivac form/fill/seal machine.

Packaging at this facility includes a combination of wax and recyclable boxes and foam trays with overwrap film enhanced with high-quality graphic labeling for tray-pack products. “Printed and clear bags are used for bulk products,” Miller says. “Allen’s Just Right Portions are individually sealed and packed in printed ziplock bags for private-label customers.”

Turley announced plans to expand the Harbeson plant on April 26. Phase one primarily involves repositioning equipment. The next stage will involve brick and mortar. As part of its business plan to continue as a premier supplier of traypack products, the company plans to increase production at this facility from 1 million birds per week to 1.2 million by September 2010.

The Harbeson plant is doubling its thigh-deboning capabilities. Pastrana told Meat&Poultry in mid-July: “We moved in a Cryovac 8600 machine, which will be packaging between 50,000 and 60,000 birds a week out of that mix. We’ll be doing 805s and about 2,000 cases of roasters here a week.

“We debone about 60 percent of our birds, and that will continue,” he adds. “We’re adding one deboning line. Once we make the changeover, we’ll be deboning all the new birds coming into the system.”

The plant is also changing to a single-line skin. “We’ve also added several off-line tray-pack lines for combo trays, which are difficult to run on a straight line [without disrupting daily production],” Pastrana says. “We will also be bringing one new tray-pack line into the deboning department, which will enable us to tray all boneless breasts. We’re also going to look at expanding capacity in the weigh/ price/label department. Eventually, the plant will add another slaughter line.”

Allen is unique because it can “turn on a dime” to make a decision from customer-service and productspec standpoints. “We can service our customers better just because we are smaller,” Pastrana adds.

Allen’s Harbeson facility marries skilled craftsmen with automation. “If you can find the people to do the job needed in deboning, for example, that’s great,” Pastrana says. “If you can’t, you have to go to automatic deboning and lose about 1 percent or 1.5 percent of yield. At this plant, every percent of yield is worth about $3.5 million. You have to make decisions [on automating] based on what your labor market is like.”

One reason the Harbeson plant remains successful is thanks to its many long-term employees, he says.

“Allen’s strategic plan for growth is based on a consumer-driven market of more value-added and healthconscious shoppers,” Miller says. “Allen’s will not only be able to provide our retailers with store-branded tray-pack, antibiotic free, low-fat and portion-controlled products, but will also be able to provide furtherprocessed products as our expansion plans continue.”

Additional production increases are planned at the Harbeson facility in the next two years that will add about 70 jobs this year and up to 200 jobs during the expansion period.

Allen’s robust worker-safety program includes a written safety program, a $700,000 investment in the Alchemy training system, AIM Safety Score Program, an employee-involved Hunt for Hazards Awareness Program and a semi-annual inspection by an independent safety expert.

“Our safety department, overseen by a plant-safety coordinator and corporate-safety manager, holds regular training sessions, safety drills and management meetings to promote a safe working environment and to ensure compliance with state and federal regulations,” Miller says. “With the support of training and the enforcement by management, our Harbeson, Del., facility has celebrated 1 million man hours without a lost-time accident.”

The road to success isn’t always smooth. In June, Maryland State labor officials imposed a record $1 million fine on the company. Inspectors allege they found 51 violations at Allen’s former plant in Hurlock while investigating a December incident in which a worker was seriously injured.

“We do not believe the citation is an accurate reflection of our safety record, but rather a more aggressive enforcement policy by the agency, directed at increasing revenue for the state,” Tracy Morris, vice president of Human Resources, says. “We intend to contest the citation.”

Food-safety focus
The Harbeson plant utilizes a comprehensive food-safety system incorporating the Global Food Safety Initiative. “To do this, programs were initiated that meet Safe Quality Foods [SQF] 2000 guidelines,” says Lance Hill, vice president of Quality Assurance. “The plant attained certification to SQF Level 2 in December 2009 and will be certified to Level 3 by the end of July 2010.

“The company and plant are dedicated to maintaining this select status by providing the resources necessary to continue this professional approach to Food Safety and Quality Systems,” he adds. “A multi-hurdle intervention process utilizing several antimicrobials in combination has provided superior results in microbial control at the facility.”

Developing new products that enhance a customer’s product line is the company’s new-product focus.

“One of our newest features is the Allen’s Just Right Portions – a 1.5 lb. convenience driven, case-ready, boneless-breast item individually wrapped using Multivac technology,” Miller says. “Another new product recently developed is a complete case-ready line of ABF [all-vegetable feed, antibiotic-free] products. Each wholesome product is packaged to our retailers under their private-labels.

“This focus on fulfilling customer needs is fundamental to our service goals and plays to our strengths in being able to quickly respond to a request,” he adds. “We are currently conducting work to address the needs of a nationally recognized account with an easy-serve package that focuses on the consumer’s desire for valueadded, ABF-type poultry products.”

Harbeson’s tray-pack master cases are fully recyclable. A customized logo is under development for addition to the master case to communicate recyclability to end-users. “Allen’s will be investigating replacement of all wax containers at Harbeson with recyclable cases,” Miller says.

The Harbeson facility is currently undergoing a conversion to natural gas, which is a cleaner, more efficient energy source. “In conjunction with the University of Delaware, we also own and operate several solar-powered chicken houses,” adds Gary Gladys, vice president of Live Operations. The Harbeson plant has a superior water-treatment system with enhanced nutrient removal, incorporating process features learned from Cordova’s new Biological Nutrient Removal System.

JCR Enterprises recycles inedible material from Allen’s processing plants into high-quality, feed-grade supplements. It takes the raw product from Allen’s processing plants and renders them into feed-grade products. It makes bone meal, poultry meal and poultry fat that goes into feed for the company. The remaining meal goes to the outside market as pet-grade meal or pet products. This facility runs about 10.5 million lbs. a week of product. Out of that, it will generate 1,700 to 1,800 finished tons of products.

“As with many poultry producers, our biggest challenge is with the recruitment and retention of our work force and the ever-evolving regulatory regulations,” Miller says. “Using our strategic plan for growth, we are revitalizing our facilities to be able to adapt to the ever-changing consumer market. As the customer evolves for our retailers, our facilities will be ready to meet the needs of those consumers. While doing this, we will maintain our focus on high-quality, high-value products, focus on customer service and protection of our valuable resources such as employees, our community and our environment.”

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