Hog ties

by Bryan Salvage
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What has become Natural Food Holdings’ 49,500-sq.-ft. pork fabrication facility in Sioux City, Iowa, in recent years has paved the way for excellence in operational execution. This mid-size plant depends heavily on incorporating progressive technologies and industry-leading, meat-cutting craftsmanship to produce more than 3,000 SKUs of fresh-pork products efficiently and effectively.

Sioux-Preme Packing Co.’s fabrication plant in Sioux City and harvesting facility in Sioux Center, Iowa, was acquired by Natural Food Holdings in 2010 after SPPC’s former capital partner, Chicago-based Hilco Trading, and NFH inked the deal. Meat & Poultry listed NFH’s estimated 2012 sales at $325 million in last year’s Top 100 report.

“The support we receive through NFH helps provide us the financial flexibility we need to improve our production systems and technology,” says Jim Malek, vice president of sales. “This new support gives us the ability to expand and innovate.”

Humane animal handling is a priority at NFH. Its 3,000 hog-handling facility in Sioux Center was designed with meat quality and safety in mind. Pens are built with gates that form 45 degree angles when open so hogs don’t encounter 90 degree angles when moving through pens. The floor also features an anti-slip surface. Addressing details such as these reduce stress on the hogs, thus increase meat quality and reduce injuries.

The company’s CO2 stunning offers a number of advantages vs. electric stunning including decreasing stress on the animals before harvest, less blood splash and bruising, reducing PSE (pale, soft, exudative meat) and improved meat quality.

Fresh focused

The Sioux City fab facility processes only fresh pork – loins, hams, bellies, butts, picnics, spareribs, split carcasses, barbecue hogs and offal items. “We don’t do any processed or enhanced, pumped, flavored or seasoned product,” says Todd Petersen, plant manager. “As a result of our technologies, processes, craftsmanship and food-safety measures, we guarantee 21 days shelf-life on bone-in products, 28 days for boneless products.”

One-hundred forty-two plant workers process between 4,000 and 5,000 carcasses during each, eight to 10-hr. shift, five days per week.

The Sioux City fab plant operates various lines. On the main cut floor are the main break table, ham line, picnic line, butt line, belly line and further processing line. The newer loin-boning room, which opened in 2007, contains a boneless product line and trim line.

Private-label products, two organic programs, three antibiotic programs, breed-specific programs plus other custom-product programs are fabricated at this plant; 50 percent of total products go to further processing.

“Our private-label customers give us the opportunity to craft a variety of restaurant-ready and consumer-sized items to fit their end-users’ markets,” Malek says. “The continuous, innovative nature of chefs and consumers foster our need to continue to change our facility accordingly.”

Most finished products leave the plant in refrigerated form. A small amount of product is frozen for the company’s export customers in Canada, Mexico and Japan.

Crafting this wide array of products is possible thanks in large part to the plant’s multi-skilled butchers. “Most of our meat-cutters can do 10-plus different [cutting] jobs. And they handle many different positions in one day,” Petersen says.

Packaging includes vacuum-sealed bags, polywrap and paper wrap. “We produce what customers want. That’s what makes us unique,” Petersen adds.

Proud partners

Petersen and Malek agree the more the plant’s technology suppliers know about what’s being done daily on the floor, the more likely they will become true partners. Recent partnerships have resulted in incorporating new technologies that help keep the plant ahead of the production curve.

For example, the Sioux City facility is the first meat plant in the US to use the Rollstock RC-300 Rotary Chamber packaging machine, which has been running since January 2012. Of all of its features, company executives are most happy with its dependability and flexibility in handling a wide variety of products. It accepts a variety of chamber configurations (widths and lengths) and sealing profiles (single, double or custom seal impressions) and sealing widths from 12 inches up to 24 inches long, which is ideal for the plant’s wide product diversity and quick product changeover needs.

Oshkosh, Wis.-based Curwood Inc., partnered with Rollstock plus it assisted NFH with the R&D and the purchase of this machine.

Another partnership resulted in a custom-made, rebuilt, main break table. Faced with an aging break table frame work with a worn chain, the plant had to either replace or restore it. Working with Sioux City-based Industrial Design Fabrication & Installation, NFH replaced the stainless-steel slat table with a plastic module belt. For the loin hold-downs, unique stainless-steel inserts shaped like a module with a stainless-steel hook lift and retract to hold the loins in place. An extra area at the top of the module was machined out, which allows the plant sanitation crew to effectively clean the slide mechanism.

After replacing the stainless-steel slats, the weight on the framework dropped from 37,000 lbs. to less than 7,500 lbs. Thirty percent less water and chemical use is needed now when cleaning the belt during sanitation, and the new break table saves two man-hours per day during cleaning.

The lighter, 56-ft. long table requires less energy to operate, which has saved the company $28,000 per year. There has been no abnormal wear of the belt or pins during its more than two years of operation.

Another partnership enhances food safety. The plant’s wall-mounted ozone system from Downers Grove, Ill.-based CEC The Ozone Company, sprays ozonated water onto five belts on the main cut floor. Another ozone system for belts on the loin side is currently being built and two more belts are being added to the existing system on the main floor.

Petersen further explains, “Thanks to a continuous warm-water rinse and a cold-water ozone belt rinse, total plate counts are well within limits and we don’t spray harsh chemicals that can end up on the pork.”

Future plans

Automation will continue driving production at the plant, which is kept running by a skilled, three-person maintenance crew. “They can fix scales, electronics, fabrication technology, do welding, they can rebuild a gear box – they do it all,” Petersen boasts.

“They adapt really well to new automation,” adds Paul Johnson, Sioux City plant maintenance manager. “They’re eager to learn. For three folks, we get a lot done.”

Due to limited cooler space, carcasses that arrive at the plant each morning must be shipped out that same night as finished product. “Our transportation and sales departments do an incredible job keeping this flow moving,” Petersen says.

The facility’s major challenge is effectively utilizing the square footage to keep products separated, Malek says. “The variety and number of SKUs we’re making are creating a bigger need for more efficient, effective in-plant placement of packages,” he adds.

Petersen’s biggest challenge today is looking to the future – anticipating what consumers, chefs and customers will want in the next five years and being prepared for future product requests so the facility doesn’t need to start from scratch. “We must try to change the processing floor for the long-term to ensure it’s not constantly in flux,” he concludes.

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