As a leading pioneer in the shelfstable, microwaveable meals category, Hormel Foods recently took a major step in breaking away from the pack when it began operating Progressive Processing LLC, in Dubuque, Iowa, on Jan. 25, 2010. This new, whollyowned facility, now in startup, is expected to cost $89 million once completed. Already spanning 348,000 sq. ft. and with room to grow, this plant is the first new production facility Hormel has built in more than 25 years.

The facility is currently running one line of Hormel Compleats shelfstable, microwaveable meals. Initially, the products made there included four of the line’s most popular varieties: Spaghetti, Chicken & Dumplings, Chicken & Noodles and Lasagna. In April, the plant added Turkey & Hearty Vegetables, Beef Steak Tips, Swedish meatballs and Homestyle Beef with potatoes and gravy.

Having celebrated the facility’s grand opening on March 30, Hormel and Progressive Processing executives have already planned for future production needs. The facility has the capacity to quadruple its current production.

When asked about throughput, Mike Devine, vice president of grocery product operations at Hormel Foods, said the first goal of the Progressive Processing facility was “to get us over 100 million lbs. a year.”

“We just have one line in here at present,” Devine says. “We have room and capabilities for more to go in. We’re also in the process of getting ready to start adding a canning line to complement our canning production for products such as Hormel chili, Dinty Moore beef stew and other products.”

Taking the LEED

The facility began operations with one shift and a second shift was added on May 17. The new facility was built according to the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, developed by the U.S. Green Building Council for environmentally sustainable construction . Hormel Foods has applied for LEED certification and expects confirmation in the coming months. It is expected to be one of the first manufacturing plants – and the only refrigerated food-processing facility in the U.S. – to be LEED-certified at any level.

The Dubuque plant is designed to use 25 percent less energy and water than a plant built to meet current building codes and industry standards. It was constructed using materials containing more than 36 percent recycled content.

Energy efficiency was a goal at this facility. For example, non-refrigerated areas, including the warehouse, maintenance-shop and engine-room areas, feature 201 skylights. “The lighting in [skylight] areas are all sensor-controlled for both motion and brightness so energy and lights are on when needed,” Devine says. “It provides a very nice work environment.”

Cost-centric pumps, fans and other equipment are powered by a variable speed drive, which minimizes power consumption at all operating speeds. The boiler system’s feedwater is heated with heat from the refrigeration system and condensing economizer . A reverse-osmosis system reduces water and energy use; and concentrate water is reused. Energy is recovered from boiler blowdown and blowdown water is captured for gray water use. Process equipment water is stored, filled and used for flushing toilets, cleaning the wastewater screen and more.

Heat pumps using environmentally friendly refrigerants extract heat from plant processes. Sensors identify room occupancy and determine heating and cooling needs.

Recovered heat from the central refrigeration system is used to heat water for plant operations. Design features minimize electrical energy consumption.

“Another nice feature was 85 percent of the waste materials coming off the construction at the facility were recycled,” Devine said.

On the production floor

State-of-the-art equipment is already operating throughout the plant and includes a Raytheon Microwave unit to temper frozen 50-lb. boxes of meat from sub-zero temperatures to 26°F-28°F degrees in minutes. And an extensive Raque line transports trays from the denester through the fill stations and into the sealing area to Aagard loaders and unloaders, among other items. But Mark Zelle, plant manager, said at opening-day ceremonies in Dubuque: “The human aspect [is what] makes this plant impressive. Our team members are engaged, energetic and eager to contribute to the company.”

Currently employing 138 people, the facility could employ up to 300 people once it reaches maximum capacity.
When raw materials are received, code dates listed from the supplier are entered into a system and the facility prints a barcode to track ingredients and products throughout the entire process.

Processing begins in the product prep area where staffers dice chicken and weigh meatballs in the batching area. “We take some of our raw materials and run them through a color sorter and it can remove deleterious materials found in products,” Zelle says. “We have pasta in many of our products so we also will be doing some blanching.”

Next, spices, starches, salts and other ingredients are portioned into spice bags, Zelle adds.

Everything then comes together in the cook room. “This is where we bring in the pasta, meat complex, any vegetables, slurry, seasonings and more,” Zelle says. “They get mixed together and brought up to temperature in thermal blenders. Once we reach the appropriate temperatures, we do qualitycontrol testing to ensure everything is up to spec. Everything up to this point has been scanned and tracked with bar codes so we have accountability as far as our ingredients go.”

Product is then released into a surge hopper and pumped through long lines to the fill area. The fill area is equipped with three different fillers, Zelle says. “If we’re running a oneshot fill, we would go through one filler. The fillers are [located] over the line of the Raque tray-line,” he adds.

Trays are being denested coming down the line. The fillers travel with the trays and fill them. “If it’s a twoshot fill, they’ll continue on and another filler will fill a particulate, pasta item or whatever ingredient is required,” Zelle explains. “Then they transfer onto the sealing unit of the Racque line. We take a picture [with a vision inspection system] to ensure each seal area is free of contamination and we start tracking where that tray is in that operation. At the end of the line if there was contamination, [contaminated trays] are automatically ejected from the line.”

Microwaveble trays are fed into the Racque rollstock film system that’s applied and sealed in the Racque sealing unit. “Then we go to the packaging area where a sleeve is applied on an Aagard packaging system and that goes into a wrap-around case fed into the palletizer and onto the pallet wrapper. Our packaging is modified atmosphere, not vacuum.” “Each tray seals by pressure and heat and we trim the film,” Zelle says. “Product then goes through the system and gets code-dated, X-ray inspected, check-weighed and is automatically put into a rack...a food robot-type of a pickand-place type operation.”

Next, the rack gets transferred into the retort process. “After retorting, they’re unloaded and put back onto small trolleys and taken to the pack area. From there, they get unloaded by a robot and are put into a sleeve and into the case,” Zelle continues.

Food-safety focus

Food safety is a priority at Hormel. “The vision inspection system sorts through products...our goal is to run all of our particulates into the vision system to look for any type of foreign material before it’s incorporated into our product,” Devine says.

Once the containers are sealed, they are run through an inline X-ray system. “Then we check to make sure we have the right weights,” he adds. “Our traceability system traces our products all the way through the operation – from the beginning to end.

“This system has been very good,” Devine continues. “We’ve achieved what we wanted because we can account for our ingredients.”

Other processing interventions rely on both technology and employees. “We use metal detectors several times in the process,” Zelle says. “We have a very top-end, quality-control staff that works diligently. Before any batch is released, we do checks to make sure consistency is correct before we go out. We do inline checks as far as screen testing to make sure our solids and distribution continues to look good throughout the batch.”

The plant’s quality-control lab was intentionally placed near the production lines so it would be in a central location where container checks (including burst testing, peel testing, residual oxygen and headgap analysis testing) could be done conveniently. “We wanted to have a lot of the associates on the floor take more responsibility for what was going on from a food-safety and quality standpoint – and even as far as a production and maintenance standpoint – to help out with things like teardown and setup so if there was something out of the ordinary it would be noticed,” Zelle says.

The in-house team came up with a system for tracking seals, gaskets and O rings. “At the end of the day, all of the O rings go onto a peg system they have locked on there for sanitation, they’re counted on that lock-andpeg system; it tells you how many you should have there,” Zelle adds. “We try to account for everything all the way through the system.”

Although plant construction began almost two years ago, the facility is not completed. “There are still some construction projects going on,” Devine says. “We’re looking at the Progressive Processing plant as being a growth engine for the grocery products division at Hormel for the future.” •

Ettinger on convenience, innovation

Hormel Foods is no newcomer to the shelf-stable microwaveable meal category; it is a pioneer.
“Top Shelf was Hormel’s initial entry into the shelf-stable microwaveble meals category that Dick Knowlton [former Hormel chairman, president and CEO] and his team pioneered back in the late 1980s,” says Jeffrey Ettinger, chairman, president and CEO of Hormel Foods.

This product line was very successful initially, but it eventually hit a plateau, he adds. “Over time, the marketing teams experimented with different branding and flavor varieties,” he continues. “For a while, the product was named Dinty Moore American Classics, somewhat of a core meatand-potatoes item. Then as we headed into the decade of the 2000s, the team came up with a couple of key breakthroughs...rebranding it under the Hormel brand, changing a few of the flavor varieties – and probably the biggest one of all, the product box was replaced by a tray.

“We put the tray in a sleeve and then consumers better understood the item,” he continued. “They were [initially] confused, it turned out, as to what was in that box. Is it a kit? Do I have to add meat to it? What do I need to do with this item? Once we made those changes, the product line took off.”

In general, the notion of convenience items, especially shelf-stable microwaveable meals, have so many great applications, Ettinger points out. “You don’t have to use a community freezer at the office,” he added. “Microwaving an item from the frozen state often takes five or six minutes and you can end up with cold spots in the items. These products are prepared with no cold spots in 90 seconds and you can keep them in your office cubicle or briefcase. They’re very consistently-performing items.”

When asked if there is room for more technological evolution when it comes to producing these products, Ettinger answers, “We absolutely think there’s more room. We think the quality can be enhanced and we experiment all the time with different technologies that might lead to that — and certainly varieties [can be added]. We have a line of CHI-CHI’s Mexican items that are getting us into ethnic offerings in microwaveable trays. There are many other areas we think consumers will be interested in.”