A former red meat processing plant gets a makeover as Butterball transitions turkey bacon production in-house. 

In 2013, Butterball LLC acquired Montgomery, Illinois-based Gusto Packing Co., and with this deal came a 260,000-sq.-ft. processing plant and an opportunity for Butterball to secure and grow its value-added turkey business. But the Gusto Packing acquisition also presented Butterball the opportunity to innovate.

Several products were manufactured at the former Gusto plant, including hickory and applewood smoked bacon, bone-in smoked pork and turkey products, smoked boneless hams, cooked hams, pork and turkey deli meats and spiral-sliced hams. But not all of the facility space was utilized.

“The opportunity we saw at Butterball was to expand our fully cooked, ready-to-eat value-added business, and we were short capacity at our existing facilities,” says Mike Bliss vice president of operations at Butterball. “So, when we were presented the opportunity to look into this facility, right away we recognized the fact that it was under utilized.”

Butterball and its corps of engineers, consultants and vendors set about making use of every inch of the Montgomery facility. In the end, Butterball was able to use 50 percent of the existing equipment for pork processing and 50 percent for turkey product processing. “We upgraded stuffing, sizing equipment and we upgraded bacon slicing and packaging equipment,” Bliss says. But the equipment installed for turkey bacon production was another story. “Everything we brought into the plant in support of our turkey bacon operation was new,” Bliss says.

Bliss says Butterball enlisted various equipment vendors to partner with the company’s internal experts while leveraging company resources. Jacksonville, Florida-based Stellar Group was the primary design-build partner for the upgrades made to accommodate turkey bacon production at the Montgomery plant. Equipment vendors included Cozzini, Reiser, Weber, Multivac and IBP.

Separate for food safety

The layout of the former Gusto plant called for changes in the plant’s layout and line configurations, Bliss explains. Changes were made to facilitate separation of raw and fully cooked, ready-to-eat product as well as separation of the plant employees who work in those areas. Butterball invested nearly $4 million in improvements associated with food safety within the first 18 months of taking over the plant.

“As an example, we made certain all of the ovens were flow-through,” Bliss explains. “We moved packaging lines so we had all of the pack and the cardboard associated with packaging outside the exposed product areas.”

The boneless spiral ham operation initially was surrounded on all four sides by ready-to-cook operations of one type or another, Bliss says. “We moved that entire operation into the area we call ready-to-eat and, again, created that complete separation between raw, ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat.”

Plenty of time and resources were spent changing the behavior of team members who also are separated based on their roles in raw and ready-to-eat fully cooked production. The Montgomery plant utilizes “clean-room separation” complete with areas associates must pass through and perform specific procedures for handwashing, washing of boots and donning of protective outerwear before entering the ready-to-eat processing areas of the plant.

“You can’t really put a dollar figure on costs when the cost is changing the behavior of the associates, and they now recognize that if you work in ready-to-eat, then you have to use this welfare area, you have to travel this path and you have to go through only these doors to get into your area of operation,” he adds.