In February 2012, Troutman, NC-based Case Farms made its debut into the fast-food, chicken cut-up business when it acquired what is now called its Canton division from Park Farms in Canton, Ohio. This is Case Farms’ fourth chicken processing plant; other plants are located in Goldsboro and Morganton, NC, plus Winesburg, Ohio. Collectively, the company grows 2.5 million head of live chickens per week while its four plants process more than 850 million lbs. of fresh, partially cooked and frozen-for-export poultry products per year.

In order for Case Farms to capitalize on this new poultry market, changes had to be made at the newly acquired Canton facility. “Initially, this was a tray-pack facility,” explains Jerry Lankford, Canton plant manager – who also has 20-plus years of management experience in the poultry industry– of the Canton slaughter and processing complex.

This complex includes a 96,176-sq.-ft. processing plant that houses a 50,000-sq.-ft. first-processing area; and a 50,908-sq.-ft. cooler/freezer facility built in multiple stages from 1956-1989. The complex is located on 15.3 acres in suburban Canton. Approximately 420 hourly employees and 45 administrative or management people work there. A 26,066-sq.-ft. poultry hatchery built in 1990 is located on 8.98 acres.

“The Canton facility slaughters anywhere from 100,000 to 135,000 head of small birds [weighing 4 lbs. each] per day,” Lankford says. “We slaughter about 570,000 per week. We get our birds from within a 45- to 50-mile radius.”

Facility upgrade

Since its acquisition by Case Farms in February of 2012, the Canton complex has experienced some significant equipment upgrades. “Our first day of processing, after a major change in processing equipment, was March 19, 2012,” says Lankford, who has been plant manager since the acquisition. “We had some modifications in the replacement of equipment. It’s an entirely different process going from tray-pack to fast-food, cut-up.”

For example, the processing plant installed a new cut-up machine for producing eight- and nine-piece, fast-food, cut-up products. In addition, they changed the cone lines and added a breast-sizing line for sizing boneless chicken breasts.

After a successful start-up, Lankford and his management team quickly determined that some of the equipment at the front end of the plant needed to be replaced. Lankford and Chester Hawk, maintenance manager at the Canton facility, began a search for a new evisceration system that would effectively process small birds. After spending some time shopping the equipment market for an evisceration solution, they ultimately acquired a new high-speed system.

“It’s very efficient and extremely clean and pretty similar to other systems we saw, but when we witnessed the giblet harvest – we were hooked,” he adds. “It automatically harvested 100 percent of what was available vs. the other systems, where an individual must harvest [the giblets manually]. In September of 2012 on Labor Day weekend, we installed that high-speed system. In addition to acquiring new pickers, we also installed a new kill line, which completed the upgrade at the front end of the plant.”

After this upgrade, Lankford and his colleagues determined they still needed additional cut up-equipment so they purchased another eight- and nine-piece cut-up system. “Because of our increasing production volume, we had to get another piece of equipment to be more efficient to meet our customers’ needs,” Lankford explains.

An additional marinade injector was also acquired. This equipment offers flexibility and is fully automated.

“You can input five different product codes for different levels of injection,” Lankford says. “It is pretty unique technology in achieving a consistent level of marination, which our customers demand. We also acquired an additional automated bagger that can individually bag up to two head of eight- or nine-piece chicken or up to four head of dark meat leg and quarters.”

Unique operation

Case Farms’ Canton processing operation runs two production shifts and a sanitation shift five days per week. “We have a unique slaughter schedule,” Lankford says. “We start our first shift on the traditional third shift at night for slaughter; cleaning is done on second shift.”

When the live birds are delivered to the Canton complex, they are placed on one slaughter line where 140 birds per minute are harvested. Next, the carcasses travel to an evisceration line that processes the same number of birds per minute. Product then travels to the chilling process where it is held for two hours in wet-chill.

“Our chilling system reduces the internal temperature from about 100°F to less than 40°F within two hours,” Lankford says. Employees then rehang the birds. Then each bird is weighed and transferred to another shackle. The shackles travel to specific drops based on grades or weight on the plant’s 21-drop distribution line, he says.

Two front-half deboning lines debone birds that are too small or large for fast-food customers. There is one front-half and leg-quarter cut up machine and two fast-food, cut-up machines. Both of the latter machines can needle-inject marinade.

How long it takes a live chicken to become a finished product depends upon each customer’s needs for shipment, but all orders involve approximately three hours of processing. “It could be as soon as four to six hours from slaughter to delivery to the customer,” Lankford says.

Adding value

Case Farms’ Canton complex processes both commodity and value-added chicken products. “We have some orders that require needle-injection marination and we have some products we just cut into eight or nine pieces and leg quarters,” Lankford says. “Marinating is the only value-adding we do.”

On any given day, the complex processes approximately 75 different SKUs out of 350 total, primarily for fast-food customers. Products are shipped in refrigerated form.

“Currently, about 55 percent of our products are made for fast-food customers,” Lankford says. “We have aspirations to grow our fast-food base to about 75 percent. Approximately 5 percent of what’s made in Canton goes directly to retail. Such products are bagged leg quarters under the Case Farms brand. In addition, less than 5 percent of Canton’s products are for export – primarily whole birds for a customer in Canada.”

Customers demand consistency. “Because our product is ready-to-cook, they want the sizes to be consistent so when you go to these fast-food/foodservice customers you have a consistently-sized product every time,” Lankford says.

All birds that weigh outside the Canton complex’s weight requirement for its fast-food, cut-up operation – birds weighing less than 2 lbs. and more than 3 ¼ lbs. – are diverted to deboning. “We cut those birds into leg quarters and front halves. We have one line dedicated for that operation.”

The bone-in front halves are aged in the cooler for six hours, brought out and deboned to make breasts, tenders and wings – full or cut. Some birds not meeting Canton’s product specs are sold in other markets.

An eye-appealing product is equally as important as a good-tasting product. The Canton complex has done a lot of work to reduce its scald temperatures while still maintaining a top-quality, wholesome, safe product.

“One customer said when you go into the cooking process [at a fast-food establishment] and if the epidermis is yellow, the breading won’t adhere properly to the meat,” Lankford says. “This creates a huge problem in making fried chicken. Scalding temperatures that are either too high or too low can impact the further processing application downstream. If you over-scald, you change the color of the meat and it doesn’t have a wholesome appearance. If you under scald, you’ll have an issue with the skin and it will also negatively affect the color.”

Packaging at the Canton complex includes 8-5 bags, 4-10 bags, bulk bags and in a combo form for further-processor customers.

“Most of our sales are local and regional, but we do have national sales, which is the customer base Case Farms has nurtured over the years,” Lankford says. “A very small percentage of our customer base is international.”

New products

Case Farms Canton has had customers approach them for help in developing new products. “Because our bird size is so small, they’re ideal for products like small tenders…where we don’t have to size them,” Lankford says.

When asked if the Canton complex will offer products in the future not currently offered, Lankford answers, “Yes – chicken paws.” At present, chicken paws harvested at the Canton complex are sold as offal only and are not offered for export. “We don’t have an approved inspection system for that type of export operation,” he adds. “But we have done some research on such operations and received some quotes for equipment that would be needed to get into the specialized market. Our goal is to process chicken paws primarily for export to Asian markets in the future.”

Maintaining and enhancing food safety is a continuous process. Each evisceration machine, for example, has a chlorine rinse that is applied, which Lankford says is very effective. At the post-chill level, the Ecolab Sanova process treats products in an eight-second dip tank. Each bird treated emerges with zero pathogens.

The Canton complex has also been involved in “Green” initiatives. It entered into a partnership with some customers to use packaging that is 100-percent recyclable. “Approximately 20 percent of what we do for our fast-food, cut-up customers is packed in recyclable containers,” Lankford says. “We also retrofitted to T8 light bulbs, which reduces the amount of energy required to operate the lights.”

‘Employer of choice’

The complex strives to be the employer of choice. Lankford says, “You have to listen to your people and ensure they get all the resources and training they require. In my career, most processing facilities have been in rural areas. Located in suburban Canton, we attract a lot of interest from inner-city job seekers. A lot of these people have never actually seen or dealt with live animals or a slaughter or evisceration process. Some new hires are a little reluctant at first, but after training and educating it’s pretty fascinating for them. We have had much success in retaining our employees.”

Case Farms stresses humane animal handling to all of its employees. New Case Farms’ employees go through an extensive animal-welfare training period. Documented training is required for each employee and their records relating to this training are placed in the personnel file. “We also do daily audits,” Lankford says. “We have also had unannounced USDA audits and we achieved an excellent animal-handling status.”

Lankford’s goal is for the Case Farms Canton complex to become a leader in the fast-food, cut-up industry. “We want to be the processor of choice,” he adds.

At present, most competitors of Case Farms Canton are much larger and can produce more products. “I struggle with that, but we still do a very good job in managing the process,” he adds. “Our sales department has made leaps and bounds in being able to serve our customers. We listen to our customers and are learning to master the business. We want to know everything there is to know about the fast-food, cut-up business. We’ll get there; we’ll be one of the best fast-food, cut-up facilities in this industry.”

The complex plans to increase production next year. “We’ll be going from 570,000 to 672,000 birds per week in January 2014,” he adds. “With the additional birds, we’ll be more competitive. We’ll be a lot more efficient and we’ll see a lot lower costs coming out of this facility and handed over to our customers.”

Lankford is pleased to be a part of the Case Farms team. “I’ve worked for much larger companies and there always appeared to be a lot of red tape when it came to trying to get resources to do a better job,” he says. “Each time I’ve asked Case Farms corporate management for a tool for this process, they’ve provided it.

“Obviously, they expect a return on that investment and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he explains. “The corporate-management team has high expectations, but they give you the tools you need. It’s been rewarding.”