Sterling Silver – these words have been synonymous with impeccable quality and richness for centuries. Twenty-two years ago, Cargill launched what has evolved into its premium brand of beef, and 12 years ago it introduced its highly marbled pork and enhanced pork for retail and foodservice domestic and international markets – all aptly branded Sterling Silver.

Producing these high-end products requires superior livestock, company-developed processing and food-safety technologies and exceptional management.

“Sterling Silver premium beef products leave our facility refrigerated. We offer approximately 80 muscle cuts for foodservice and retail, including middle and end meats as well as ground beef,” says Ozlem Worpel, brand manager of Sterling Silver beef. Joining Cargill in 2007, she has 14 years of domestic and international brand management experience.

Although Cargill does not release brand-specific sales or pounds produced, Worpel says annual sales of Sterling Silver products have grown consistently from Day One.

Beef extraordinaire
The Sterling Silver story began in 1988 after Cargill bought a plant in Sterling, Colo., and began producing Sterling Silver premium beef the following year. Today, Cargill beef plants in Dodge City, Kan.; Ft. Morgan, Colo.; Friona, Texas; Plainview, Texas; Schuyler, Neb.; High River, Alberta, Canada; and Guelph, Ontario, Canada produce this line.

During a recent tour of Cargill’s 525,000-sq.-ft. Schuyler, Neb. beef complex, plant operators showcased the Sterling Silver beef production process and the plant’s production of boxed beef, which consists of large, wholesale cuts of vacuum-packed meat that are boxed for chilled shipment to retailers, foodservice operators and manufacturers, domestically and abroad.

Schuyler can slaughter and process up to 5,000 head of grain-fed cattle per day. The facility’s 2,050 employee production work force is represented by UFCW Local 22. One-hundred forty management team members oversee the complex, which is run by Steve Thompson, vice president/general manager and a 25-year Cargill veteran.

The most important step in producing Sterling Silver beef products is procuring cattle. The beef is marketed as “natural,” and is minimally processed and contains no artificial additives. Only the top 12 percent of all cattle qualify for the brand. Cattle are selected entirely on quality and not limited to breed. Steaks are premium-quality certified, surpassing the US Dept. of Agriculture’s criteria for Premium grade in terms of maturity, marbling, color, texture, firmness and absence of defects.

Cattle are procured from within 100 miles of the facility. “We have 13 cattle buyers at this complex and 1,700 cattle producers in the area,” Thompson says, all of which are required to comply with strict quality standards and are regularly audited for compliance.

Sterling Silver beef is aged a minimum of 21 days for foodservice customers and 14 days for retailers to enhance flavor and maximize tenderness. The beef has a marbling score of modest zero or higher, Worpel says. “The chemical properties of marbling cause it to release powerful aromatic and flavor compounds during cooking. As the marbling melts into the beef, the result is rich, authentic beef flavor.”

Leading-edge technologies
Many technology-rich tools, including an automated Camera Assessment System, are used to make Sterling Silver beef.
“USDA graders historically had eight to 10 seconds to make subjective calls and decisions on marbling, maturity, red-meat yield, fatness, ribeye area, weight, hump height and possible defects,” explains Steve Reichmuth, grading and cooler manager, who oversees Sterling Silver processing at Schuyler. “Cargill is the first major beef supplier to implement this system where a photo of each carcass’ ribeye is taken so the system can objectively determine marbling, weight, color, ribeye area and fat thickness.”

Using this system, a USDA grader sees the photo then reviews the results to make a final grading/certification decision. “This technology is more accurate and consistent in certifying Cargill’s brands. In fact, we maintain less than 1 percent deviation on any single trait,” Reichmuth says.

Cargill pressed for getting this technology approved by the USDA and the Canadian Beef Grading Agency. It proposed using this technology to augment government grading.

Improvements gained through this system include:

  • Quality grade and branded beef certification is more consistent across plants, shifts and graders at each Cargill beef plant.
  • Yield grading is computed based solely on the camera ribeye area and back fat thickness with hot carcass weight.
  • Data for grid-based payments and pre-harvest decisions (genetics and management) are very accurate, consistent and repeatable.

Cargill’s dimensional sorting process is another industry-leading practice that provides the premium brand with superior beef products. This process shifts away from the less-accurate practice of sorting by weight, which does not accurately predict the size of cut portions, leading to inconsistencies in size that can negatively impact foodservice operators, retailers and, ultimately, consumers. This process uses lasers to measure the shape and size of the rib-eye area, ensuring it meets the dimensional requirements set by its customers. It leads to greater accuracy and reduces variations in portion size.

Sterling Silver’s dimensional sorting process ensures that every cut is consistent in terms of thickness, weight and size to provide a more consistent eating experience.

“If you and a friend go out to dinner and both order a 10-oz. strip steak, the steaks that arrive on the plates could be quite different,” Worpel says. “For example, you could have a steak that covers more than half of your plate and the ‘same’ cut on your friend’s plate may take up less than one-third of the plate. How is that possible? Did someone get short changed?

“Well, it’s exactly what can happen when weight is the primary sorting factor,” she adds. “If you and your friend put your steaks side by side, you would notice that one is much ‘taller’ on the plate – it’s thicker than the steak that spreads out over half the plate. Therefore, dimensional sorting would have provided a more consistent eating experience. For restaurants, it can provide customers with steaks that look the same and keep customers from comparing and questioning cuts on their plates.”

Currently, Cargill is the only supplier to use this new sorting process – and Sterling Silver is the only brand for which it is used.

The plant also employs its patented Snip & Shock tenderness process. Simply put, the snip process reduces cold-induced toughening by stretching the ribeye and loin muscles, helping to produce more loosely striated and less-dense muscle, which indicates more tender beef. The shock process stimulates middle meats to reduce cold-induced toughening and accelerate the conversion of muscle into tender beef.

Food safety
“We use advanced technologies throughout our plants, and invest time, money and the talents of our people in food-safety innovation,” Thompson says. “We also work with others in and out of the industry to help solve food-safety challenges. Our goal is to provide the safest food possible, every serving, every time.”

The heart of Cargill’s plants’ food-safety systems are rigorous cleanliness and sanitation procedures, plus a thorough Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) plan.

Preventing naturally occurring bacteria entering processing facilities on the hides and in the digestive system of livestock from being transferred to the meat is Cargill’s biggest food-safety challenge. Since no single technology can be 100 percent effective in eliminating pathogens, Cargill’s processing lines feature a combination of technologies including:

  • A caustic wash is used on the exterior of the hide as it moves through the hide-on carcass wash (HOCW), followed by a bromine rise, with the goal of removing bacteria that potentially pose human health risks;
  • VerifEYE, a technology that uses ultra-violet light to detect the presence of microscopic traces of organic contamination that might harbor bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella and other pathogens on carcasses;
  • Steam pasteurization;
  • Hot water wash treatments use heat to kill pathogens that may be present on the surface of the meat;
  • Bromine and lactic acid washes; andP
  • Product sampling and testing.

Specific processes and technologies in each plant are tailored to differences in animal stock, geography and plant configurations. All are designed to reduce food-safety risks.

Cargill shares its findings with other processing companies to advance food-safety performance throughout the industry, Worpel says.

Schuyler’s Food-Safety Room houses video technology that monitors food-safety interventions throughout the plant. “We monitor our people’s sanitary procedures,” Thompson says. “Monitoring ensures we do an unbiased audit. This screen shows our interventions inside the facility. When one goes out of compliance, the system starts beeping or blinking...our monitors in this room notify the supervisor by radio that we have an issue so we get it resolved quickly. If it’s a major issue, such as a hide-on carcass wash going down, it will stop production and get the carcass wash back in line before operations start again.”

“We’ve had this system for about four years,” Thompson says. “Over the last couple of years, we have enhanced it and we hope to enhance our camera system even more. A separate Arrowsight video system focuses on animal handling.”

Automated box handling
Schuyler’s new automated box-handling system houses 55,000 finished boxes stacked 55 feet high on tiered racks. Computerized, unmanned cranes swoop in and retrieve boxes to allow building each load. Products are stored by product code. When Schuyler gets an order from corporate in Wichita, it is downloaded into the computer and the system retrieves the product by pull dates.

“Our Sterling Silver box is white; it’s a premium program so we put it in a premium box,” Worpel says.

This system is one year old. “Our reliability on order fill and our box conditions have improved tremendously,” Thompson says.

The complex’s new distribution center houses a new automated palletizer. This $1.5 million investment can quickly palletize and shrink wrap any quantity of boxes on a pallet in any form or fashion desired.

New products
Cargill’s new single-portioned, case-ready, vacuum-packaged beef and pork cuts are named Perfect Portions. Some Sterling Silver offerings under this line include flat iron, tri-tip and flank steak for beef and pork tenderloin, Frenched racks and pork brisket.

Sterling Silver’s team constantly researches new items that address customer and consumer needs, Worpel says. “Sometimes this means focusing on getting more cost-effective cuts out of the same muscles,” she adds. “Other times, we may provide a new, improved packaging option. Perfect Portions cuts are one example of Sterling Silver providing the customer with single-piece items and smaller portions. Other new products include the beef peeled tenderloin and digital muscle.”

One goal for the brand during the next year is to identify new retail and foodservice partners for both beef and pork. The primary target will be domestic growth.

This team continuously searches for new growth areas. “In our Sterling Silver Signature Chefs program,” Worpel says, “we’re working with chefs to try new products or new ways of preparation. How can we educate consumers to better understand meat? How can we improve meat in their diet? My job also deals with training and educating consumers about what red meat and premium meat is and providing them with tools they can use. This makes my job fun and exciting.”

Further value-added Sterling Silver products have been tested and are being considered for future release. As always, customer demand will spur future growth. “If there is demand coming from the customers, we‘re more than happy to look at their idea and see what we can do,” Worpel concludes.